Keeping the Family Farm in the Family

[originally appeared in the Prairie Farmer magazine – reprinted with author’s permission]

“We worked hard to pay for and build up the farm to what it’s worth today.  We couldn’t have done it without the help of our son (or daughter).   As we do our estate planning, how can we be fair to all of our children?”

So begins the conversation these days between farm couple and professional advisor. While some may think of estate planning as merely estate tax planning, taxes are just one issue. The most difficult and important matters may have little to do with taxes. Creating and carrying out plans that will assure fair—while not necessarily equal—treatment of your loved ones is such a matter.

Fairness Is Essential

Taking responsibility for this fairness issue is critical to the long-term health of your family and your legacy. Fail in this regard, and there might never again be a complete family reunion. Stick your head in the sand and you can count on the family farm becoming part of the holdings of the highest bidding neighbor.

We have to face the facts: our society has changed. Children used to stay in the area, marry neighbors, and continue the family farming traditions. Daughters became farm wives and sons became farmers. Now families have at most one or two children still in the farming operation. The others have moved on and away to different careers. The child who is heavily invested—in time, energy and dedication—may very well depend on this farm for a livelihood. To some degree he or she has earned the “right” to keep it, considering that the others moved on to often more lucrative careers and less risky futures.

Despite the changes in society, however, our core values remain unchanged. We want to treat our children fairly. Farming is “in our blood” and we want to see it—this farm—go on. We want to know someone in the next generation who shares our love of farming will carry on the tradition.

You Must Take Responsibility

The hopeful but naive person says, “I just can’t figure it out for them. My kids all get along, they’ll be fair with each other. They’ll divide the property agreeably.” Don’t do that to your kids! Johann Kaspar Lavater provided timeless wisdom when he wrote: “Say not you know another entirely, till you have divided an inheritance with him.” The wonderful kids today will become competitors, easily persuaded—by their spouses?—that they are entitled to their full-value, equal share.

A friend told me recently after suffering through an ugly family farm estate settlement that his parents would have done much better planning and it wouldn’t have been so stressful to them if they had started when they were younger. They waited to do serious planning until around age 80, and the plan did not work as they had intended.

It could have, and yours can if you start soon, look with experienced professionals for carefully tailored solutions, and then follow through. Focus on the results you want to see; let the attorney worry about what legal papers—wills, trusts, buy-sell agreements, partnerships, etc.—will be needed.

Where To Begin

If you commit yourself to a proactive planning process it is possible to achieve fair results that the family will understand and accept. In this extraordinarily complex arena you will need professional counsel.

It’s easy to find attorneys who say they “do estate planning”—but much harder to find one who knows farming and will help you develop and implement the solutions that will fit your unique goals for your family. To see if an attorney can help design a plan to fit your particular circumstances, ask some questions:

  • What percentage of your business is devoted to estate planning for farmers?
  • Have you seen those plans play out completely and work well?
  • How will you assure that my plan stays current with the law?

If you begin now to ask the right questions you will be able to develop the right plan for your family, and assure that what you have goes to whom you want, when and the way you want, transferring your traditions—not just your net worth.

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Article authored by Curt W. Ferguson and originally published in the Prairie Farmer magazine, December 2005 issue.  See the article on Curt’s web site, click HERE.

For more on this topic check out our article, “Saving the Family Farm.”

Please, not another blog about Michael Jackson!

There are 2 kinds of people in the world. Some can’t get enough of the Michael Jackson saga. Others are complaining about how all the real news in the world is being drowned out by old Michael videos and talking heads analyzing his dysfunctional family. If you’re in the 2nd group, my apologies. But below is more great information about Michael and his estate planning.

Also, if you want another interesting take on Michael’s estate plan, check out the blog post of my colleague Victor Medina – “Michael Jackson’s Estate Plan – What He Did Right!”


1. Don’t you want to avoid confusion? With Michael, there was a time period where it wasn’t clear whether he had a Will or not. In fact, his mom went to court and told the judge there was not a Will and asked that she be given power as the administrator. Now things change once the Will is presented to the court. Good planning will avoid this limbo period where people are wondering if there is a Will and where it is. Good planning will make sure that the right people know how to quickly get their hands on legal documents that you have prepared.

2. Who is a good choice as guardian of your kids? Michael’s mom is 79 years old. His youngest child is 7. If I have my math right, she will be 90 years old when he gets out of high school. Is she the best option as guardian? Under Illinois law, do you know who is qualified to raise your kids? Anyone over 18 who is not a felon but is U.S. citizen. So from that pool of people, the judge has to pick someone who is in the best interest of the child. In Illinois, the court will lean strongly toward following the parent’s wishes in naming a guardian, but is not absolutely required to name the guardian you list in your Will. If you properly name a guardian in writing, then your choice has “prima facie” validity. This means that the court presumes that your guardian choice is best, but the court may approve someone else if evidence shows that is better.

3. What about the other parent? The mother of 2 of Michael’s kids, Debbie Rowe, is to have nothing to do with them, according to his family at a press conference. She was not named as a guardian. I am assuming that she gave up all her parental rights because (in Illinois) the other surviving parent will continue to be the child’s guardian, regardless of what the Will said, unless their parental rights had already been terminated.

4. No planning = 18 year old with money. I assume that Michael’s trust provides for his children and gives instructions about how their money will be managed and when and how they can spend it or take control over it. But, if he had no plan or they couldn’t find the documents, then the law (at least in Illinois), is that kids get their money at age 18. Would your 18 year old high school senior be ready to receive your wealth (home, retirement plan, life insurance, etc.)?

5. Don’t be distracted by the big numbers. Don’t get caught in the trap that only rich people like Michael need to do estate planning. We should just call it “planning” and get rid of the term estate. Every person, regardless of their wealth or family situation, should do some kind of planning for when they are disabled or pass away. Good planning to make things easier, better, cheaper, smoother, quicker – for you now and your family later. Even doing nothing is a plan in itself.

6. End up like Elvis? Part 1. Michael was afraid he would end up dying young like Elvis. Hopefully Michael’s estate won’t end up like Elvis. When Elvis died, his estate was worth about $10 million, but by the time expenses, taxes, lawyers, and probate fees were all paid, there was less than $3 million left.

7. End up like Elvis? Part 2. Despite Elvis’ lack of planning for his death, his family has done very well with the family business. A few years ago, the family sold most of their Elvis rights for $100 million. From being worth $3 million to over $100 million in 30 years. Not bad. I say do both – set up good planning that handles your estate properly now, but also sets up your family for greater success later. Elvis’s family overcame bad initial planning to successfully grow the family wealth. Don’t make your family have to overcome that obstacle.

Wealth Transfer or Wealth Reception – Part #2 – The College Years

I went to U of I in Champaign-Urbana. Both undergrad and law school. A lot has changed since I left law school in 1995. Many new buildings, and tuition has gone way up. Do you know how much it will cost now for 4 years of undergrad, including tuition, books, room and board, etc.? Somewhere around $100,000.

Suppose your kid is ready to head to college this fall. He gets all his stuff packed, buys that little fridge, picks out a shower caddy thing, and is ready to head off to college. The day comes where you pack up the mini-van and head to Champaign. You help carry all the stuff into the dorm, give him a hug, tell him to behave himself. Then you pull out your checkbook and say “Well, since we know it’s going to cost you about $100,000 to get through the next 4 years, I thought I would go ahead and give it to you now.” So you write out that check, hand it over, get in the car and drive back home.

Assuming you had $100,000 sitting around that was earmarked for your child’s college, would you do it this way? Would you hand the entire amount over on the first day he moves in to the dorm? No? You wouldn’t do that? Why on earth not?

Well, I guess there could be a few “complications”.

1. He might not spend it wisely. You know, parties or a new car or who knows what? Then runs out of money before he gets the degree.

2. He might be taken advantage of. If word got out that he had a big wad of money just handed to him, do you think he would have any new “friends” that might be interested in hanging out? I’m sure there would be plenty of kids willing to help him make some financial decisions.

3. He might be less motivated to work hard. Hey, you’re only young once. Doesn’t it make sense to have some fun with a little of that money now? He figures he can always get a job during his last year or two of college to make up the difference.

4. What if he gets in trouble? Maybe gets in a car wreck and gets sued? Or gets in with the wrong crowd and makes a bad decision that leads to property damage or criminal charges?

5. He isn’t emotionally ready to handle that kind of money. You just handed him $100,000, even though he’s never had more than $500 in discretionary money to himself before now.

6. What if his plans change? Maybe he flunks out, changes his major, takes a semester off, or drops out of school to start a band? Are you expecting to get change back on your $100,000 if he doesn’t finish with a degree?

7. He might fall in love. Yes, love can do strange things to someone’s financial decisions.


Well, I guess you realize that people die all the time leaving assets to their kids. And those kids may not be any more ready to receive it than your college student was to receive that $100,000 right now.

Let’s say something happens to you tomorrow and you left all your assets (house, retirement plans, life insurance, bank accounts, etc.) to your kids. Would the amount of money you leave them make an impact on their daily lives? How much impact? Very little, some, or a whole bunch? Would the lifestyle they could afford be changed?

Think of the specific amount of money you would leave if you died tomorrow. How much will it increase your child’s net worth? Double it, triple it, make it go up 10 times or a 100 times? or more?

All those issues that cause concern about the college student are the same issues we address with clients in estate planning. These issues are what I call “wealth reception” issues. It’s not just about how quickly we can get the check to the kids. More important is what impact, good or bad, will the money have on the kids after they get it. And will the wealth better their lives one year, 5 years, or 10 years after you’re gone?

Michael Jackson: King of Pop (and Estate Planning?)

Are you tired yet of hearing about the Michael Jackson saga? One thing for sure, the gossip media should have plenty to talk about for quite a while. It turns out Michael did have a Last Will & Testament after all. (Thanks to those who sent me links to good articles on his estate issues.) Despite the circus atmosphere, Michael’s estate situation gives us some reminders about important planning issues:

1. Wills are public. Usually, there are many issues that are much more important to your family than keeping your estate matters secret. But at the same time, do you really want people to see your private info? And with increasing online access to court records, it will be easier and easier for your neighbor or nosy relative to look at your Will in court records without leaving home.

2. Living Trusts are private. A living trust is a good way to keep your info private at your death. And that’s exactly what Michael did. Look at his Will. It is what we call a “pour over will”, meaning his will doesn’t have much in it except instructions to dump assets at his death into what they are calling his “Family Trust” (which is private and will stay private). So all the gory details about who gets what and when they get it are only in that private document, incorporated by reference into his Will. And it seems to me that Michael’s Will actually included more info than necessary. For instance, I usually would not put something in the Will about disinheriting anyone (as he did with is ex-wife). That kind of info can go in your trust to keep it all private.

3. Asset titling is key. We haven’t seen how this part plays out yet. Even though Michael had a living trust, if he didn’t properly title his assets in that trust before his death, then the probate court will have to do it using his will. Without assets organized properly, he will lose part of the benefits of the living trust.

4. Feeding frenzy? Michael’s death is a media frenzy, but also a money frenzy too. Friends, relatives, business associates, will all be scrambling to take financial advantage. Those who are controlling his assets will be approached by all kinds of people with all kinds of ideas and schemes, all designed to get some money from the estate. Marlon Brando’s estate attorney said people came “out of the woodwork making all sorts of claims” after Brando died. At your death, who will be in charge of your estate and who will be at risk for being taken advantage of?

5. Personal items are important. There is a court dispute over 2,000 personal items. Michael’s mom has control of them, but the real executors want them back. The judge told them to try to work it out. I have seen a lot of hurt feelings and disputes over personal items, sometimes of small dollar value. But sometimes the items of small dollar value have huge sentimental and emotional value. What have you done to make sure your personal items don’t cause a dispute later? What have you done to preserve the stories behind items of emotional value?

6. We never know when. We look at Michael and figure he was living a life on the edge that could lead to an early death. But the fact is that none of us know when our time is up. One thing about estate planning – you need to do it when you don’t need it, because when you need it, it’s too late to do it.

Despite some feeling like the topic has been covered way too well, there is even more we can learn from this situation, including how to choose guardians for your children. Check out Part II of this post here.

Protecting Your Family Like an NFL Lineman: 4 Risks to an Inheritance

The other day I had a chance to speak at the Rotary Club. My topic, like the article “How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke” in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, was about protecting the money you’ve worked so hard for. There are many ways your spouse, children or grandchildren could end up losing what was so important for you to leave behind. I know you can’t imagine your loved ones blowing your hard earned money (or maybe you can), but sometimes it happens in the blink of an eye. What are some of the risks to an inheritance?

There are generally 4 risks to an inheritance:

1. Lawsuits

The SI article is riddled with stories of lawsuits. Though it may not be something you think about, imagine your spouse, devastated by your recent death, running a red light and causing an accident involving a school bus. In an instant, all that you worked so hard for could be given away by the courts to the injured parties leaving nothing to care for your family in your absence.

2. Divorce

One NFL owner was once asked by one of his players what the most dangerous thing to happen to them financially could be. His answer: Divorce. Many players, who marry their hometown sweetheart, can never imagine a divorce in their future. Even if your son has married the sweetest girl in the world, there is no way to see what the future holds. Would you be OK giving half your hard earned money to her if they end up getting divorced a few years after you pass away? It happens regularly when people don’t plan ahead.

3. Remarriage

If you die, and your spouse remarries, do you mind if part of the money you left is split with the new spouse, or even later left to the new spouse’s kids? This could either be a gold-digger (or “bimbo” as some of my clients like to say) or a stand up, class-act new spouse. But either way, without planning, there is a risk those assets will end up where you did not intend. Your children could even lose access to the money they would need for college.

4. Wild Spending

Lots of quick money means a happy life, right? Well, that’s not what the stats show. Quick money (winning the lottery, getting an inheritance, or multi-million dollar NFL contract) can lead to wild spending, divorce and bankruptcy. If your children end up with large assets at the young age of 20, they could quickly blow it like any upstart professional athlete. If someone isn’t prepared to manage the money, the money will manage them. You’ve worked hard so your kids will be ok without you, but will they really be better off with a large sum of money that has no safeguards?

Nobody likes to think about these difficult issues, but with proper planning these assets can be protected and your loved ones will be protected – even if you can’t be around to do it. Give us a call at 217-726-9200 or make plans to attend an upcoming workshop on the basics of estate planning, so you can make sure your family is protected.