We have put twenty-six years into helping my wife’s parents on the farm. We have helped them farm when they farmed, took over and improved the entire farm after they retired and still help Mom with decisions after Dad passed away. Now that Mom is in her upper eighties, all the children and grandchildren are coming home and asking Mom for support or what’s going to happen to the land. We’ve never asked for anything, but it seems like the other kids are wanting their inheritance now. Mom isn’t thinking as good as she used to and perhaps they are taking advantage of her? What can we do to protect ourselves from losing everything we worked on? – Watching It Slip Away.
Dear Slipping Away: During the time you worked on the farm, did you have any sort of contract with Mom or Dad – or an option to buy – or anything in writing?
The power of the signature is incredible. You can make wills or options to purchase or just about any kind of legal agreement on anything from school tablet paper, to the back of another receipt to restaurant napkins.
There are a couple caveats, however.
If it’s just you and the other person, it’s good to have the signature witnessed by one or more people. It’s not always necessary but it is prudent to do so. Depending on the depth of the document, you may want to get a ‘temporary’ agreement from the napkin transferred to a document produced by an attorney. In the meantime, grab the waitress and, if she knows both of you, and have her witness your signatures.
If you have the handwritten agreement signed in a private home, it can be argued that Mom or Dad signed the paper and didn’t know what they were signing.
However, that’s the argument the other heirs would have to make and make stick before this handwritten agreement could be annulled.
Here is the downside to not having anything written down and signed by both parties as to what is going to happen.
All the work, all the promises made, all the best intentions disappear into thin air when either of the parties dies or ‘forgets’ about the agreements made.
Ethically, should you have the same – or even a larger share – than the other siblings? The answer would be obviously ‘yes’! Will that happen? Not if the other siblings convince Mom to give away her estate before she dies, or have her change her will, or use their power of attorney to spend money on themselves.
As we age, our sense of reason and what’s a good decision and what’s a bad decision seems to totter back and forth each day – and oftentimes we can be influenced by whoever is spending the most time with us each day. Or maybe it’s the person who can tell the best story and convince Mom this is a good thing to do on this day.
Proving that Mom is making bad decisions, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. Just like the burden of proof would be upon the other siblings to prove the aforementioned signatures were coerced or manufactured in some way, the fact she is making these gifts of a questionable nature doesn’t mean you’ll be able to prove that she doesn’t know what she’s doing.
That would take a hearing regarding the ability of Mom to take care of herself and the courts to determine if she is a ‘vulnerable senior’. Unfortunately, she’d have to be a drooling idiot before any court would put her into guardianship and would take away her ability to make gifts. If she can still talk and stand upright and say she knows what she’s doing, it’ll never happen.
The other children taking advantage of her is unfortunate for you and any other siblings who are not partaking. However, without any documents or agreements of any kind signed by her or Dad, I’m afraid you’re going to have to take the high road on this matter and realize that some people will take whatever they can without conscience or losing a minute’s sleep, while other people wouldn’t touch a dime that wasn’t theirs.
But you still have to live with yourselves and, if God blessed you with a conscience, then unfortunately you may have to live with your conscience and believe in a higher power making things right at some point.
“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