Dear Michael:

We have been raising crops and livestock for three generations in northern South Dakota. Our son started with us in 2004 and had good years since the time he has started. Last year wasn’t great, but we broke even, which was disheartening for him. This year, with the drought, we’ve had to sell most of our cattle early as we have no pasture left and no hay crop. He is taking it hard, and we’re not even sure what we are going to do.

Any thoughts on how to deal with this? We were getting ready to make a will, but now we don’t know what to do.

– First Time Bad Year


Dear First Time Bad Year:

We are the generation that took over farms from our parents. Our parents went through times rougher than this.

I asked an older farmer if it’s ever been this dry before and his reply was “From 1984 to 1988, I had no crops due to either drought or grasshoppers. I was ready to give it up. But my dad then reminded me of the depression years, and he said those time were nothing compared to those years. So, I stuck it out even though it was hard – harder than anything I’ve ever done!”

I’ve been doing estate planning for going on forty years now – even though I’m still too young to retire. Through most of those early years, I’ve seen farmers get by on so little it amazes me. They had vegetable gardens, they had their own meat, and most had potatoes, carrots and corn growing to put over the winter. They made their own jellies and jams and had fresh eggs every day.

But even in those days, there was always a plan to follow and faith to keep. In fact, I would argue that faith kept more people on the farm than the riches it promised. For many, they had no other place to go with limited education and opportunities to work and support their families.

Perhaps it’s because we have so much modernization and mechanization, maybe it was because we’ve had so much for so many years, it’s a truism that people tend to drift away from their plans of reality and their faith in the future when they have abundance in their back yard.

I get a lot of calls from people telling me about what happened in their lives, about how farms were lost, about how families have been split apart and not talking to one another. I know that for one, they didn’t have a plan, specifically an estate plan, that they relied upon. Something written and concrete that can be referred to from time to time to keep them on the straight and narrow.

The other thing I’ve seen – and sometimes I feel like the patrol cop who gets called out on every bad call, is the shift from having faith, now and in the future, to having faith in another source, money. When I put these things together, I find this is the root of all the other problems listed above. People’s compasses tend to get directed in that direction when times are good – towards things they can have rather than what kind of life they should have, the relationships they should have.

I realize this is a bit off the beaten path for an estate planner, but over the past forty years, you learn a thing or two. A lot of planning goes into not just numbers and money and how things are going to get paid for or not paid for. Not everything is based on this law or that law, or this estate planning trick or that trick.

I believe estate planning has to be more holistic than just this. A good estate planner not only needs to know all the legal in’s and out’s with an estate, but they also have to know the people they work with, what they believe, what they have faith in, and they need to know why you want the things you do.   

So, sit down with your son, have a good talk with him about faith in the here and now, belief in the future, and then back up that faith by sitting down and putting your estate plan on paper for him to see when he goes through trying times like these. It won’t be the last one in his life, and the lessons you teach him now will take him to the next.