Dear Michael: We have two sons working on our farm operation. Originally, before they were married, they worked very well together. However, when they got married and started having children, the partnership on the farm has gotten considerably more tense and hard to deal with. Both of our sons bring different attributes to the farm – one is good with books and the automation of our farm machinery and the other does manual labor from sunup to sundown. We see it as a good marriage – but they fight more and more and drag us into these verbal – and sometimes physical – brawls. What should we do in our estate plan? We’d like to see them work together but they seem to be tearing the farm apart? – Torn Between.
Dear Torn Between: When you and your husband began this farm, you were partners in the operation. Being as both of you had the same goals, the same spouse – albeit vice versa – and the same children, it was easier for you to survive the ups and downs of this industry. You were married to one another across many spectrums – goals, children, finances, etc.
Even with all of this going for today’s married partners, fifty-three percent of them still end in divorce. Now, you are expecting a ‘marriage’ or partnership to work, between your two sons, although they both have different spouses who bring in different opinions and needs to the partnership.
You don’t know if they have the same goals and it’s likely they do not. Some families are more ‘income’ orientated and willing to do whatever to make the income complete the lifestyle they’d like. Other couples are more ‘family’ orientated and desire a more quality family life than the income orientated families do.
If you sit down at the table with your sons and their spouses, you can discover what their goals are in their lives –whether income is more important for them or quality of family life in lieu of income is important. You can help them recognize their differences and appreciate what each brings to the table in this partnership or marriage. Then you might have a salvageable situation.
If you discover these two are from two different planets in their thinking and one cannot see or understand what the other wants, then you are dooming your farm operation by forcing these two to work together. They – even though they came from the same origin – are not meant to be together and forcing them to be together will lead to disaster.
Unfortunately, this delayed disaster happens after you’ve either retired and/or stepped out of the management (parenthood) role in the partnership or you’ve died and left it to them to sort it out. Then, watch out, because the gloves will come off and it’ll be bare knuckle fighting until one or both end up on the floor – physically, financially, and emotionally.
Do I think most parents are capable of having this conversation with their children and their in-laws? Maybe one in a thousand parents can have the objectivity to have this necessary conversation. I, on the other hand, get to mediate perhaps twenty to twenty-five of these a year. Of these mediations, less than two or three come to a successful solution – and even those require annual ‘check-ups’ as a reminder of why they are together.
The rest we recognize should not be partners, should not be working together, should not have businesses intertwined with their lives, and cannot survive continuing on together.
For these, we have to give them a time-line as to when they will separate – which might be a time from today like five years, for example, or perhaps at the time of your death or retirement. We then go through all the things necessary to separate these two. We have to split the lands, the machinery and/or livestock, the assets and debts, and who pays who if one wants more than the other, etc. until we arrive at an acceptable agreement. Then, we get them to sign it – in blood if necessary – to make certain someday they remember they agreed to the conditions of this split. Just saying it isn’t good enough – get it in writing.
So, find a good mediator, bring everyone to the table, decide if they can stay together or need to split and then get a business agreement signed by both them and their spouses to the terms of a split. Anything less won’t do.
“Keeping the Family Farm in the Family”
Great Plains Diversified Services, Inc.
1424 W. Century Ave., Suite 208
Bismarck, ND 58503-0917
Toll Free: 1-800-373-4078