Dear Michael:

We have a problem in our family, as I suppose most people do. Most of our children have gone on to other careers; however, our daughter married a local boy and they farm. Our other children are adamant about getting a share of the farmland while our daughter has been here for twenty years. These are boys, and I think they feel a bit territorial about their brother-in-law or losing the namesake on the land. What do we do?

–Puzzled By Reaction


Dear Puzzled By Reaction:

Most farming men closely identify with their farm and their farmland. Most children closely identify with their home where they grew up. So, it’s only natural that these boys of yours would closely identify with the farm and would not want the farm to go to their brother-in-law.

However, farming is still a business. If you owned any other business on Main Street and your daughter and son-in-law worked in that business long enough people would soon identify with them more than you over time. When that happens, renaming your storefront business to include your son-in-law only seems natural.

Farming, on the other hand, because as a business it doesn’t have a public persona (other than to other farmers) doesn’t seem to share this same business perspective. Most farmers still refer to the land they’ve purchased in the past as “the Johnson quarter” or the “Eberle section” even though they’ve owned it themselves for years and the prior owners were dead and gone.

Like everything in estate planning, and in life per se, this little brouhaha in the making needs to be nipped in the bud by having a communication session with the daughter, your sons, and your son-in-law. It’s time to have a heart to heart about how much your daughter and son-in-law have put into the farm, how much they’ve sacrificed, and how the farm likely wouldn’t be here at all today had they not stepped up twenty years ago.

Letting this go on until you die is just going to keep in festering and will bloom out into full-on problems when you do die.

As such, you need to sit and listen to your sons and understand how they feel connected to the family farm and that connection doesn’t have to end. If they want to come out and work on the farm after you’re gone, they’re more than welcome. If they have been hunting on the land when they like, see if you can work out an agreement with them and your daughter and son-in-law about their ability to come out and hunt or use the land as they have in the past.

With all this in mind, you still have to be fair to your daughter and son-in-law as they are not your hired hands in this whole affair. They are partners with you in this farming operation, and as you get older and older, their responsibilities on both the farming end and helping the two of you live comfortably for the rest of your lives gets heavier and heavier.

If the other three children chose to do something different with their lives, that was their choice. However, those who stuck with the business and worked side by side with you and are responsible for you more and more as you age, certainly deserve to get some shot at receiving a larger share and/or the ability to buy out the other children’s share. Farms can’t go down in size each generation, as that’s how you ended up with the “Johnson quarter.”

So, if your estate plan has a major downsize in the future for your daughter and son-in-law by splitting up the farm, you better communicate that to them as soon as possible as well. They are counting on making a life here – and splitting the land or just plain not making any decisions will cost them the entire time they spent working with you on the farm.

Library of Congress public domain photo of farm building in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, circa 1941 (contributed by photographer John Vachon, 1914-1975).