“Getting started is the first step; getting started is the hardest step,” says Heather Gessner, a South Dakota Extension Educator from McCook County. She made the statement during her presentation on estate planning and transitioning the farm and ranch to the next generation at a recent women's agriculture day I attended in Brookings, SD. “Families discuss which sires to breed the cows to each year, which corn varieties to plant and what jobs need to be tackled on a daily basis, but nobody wants to sit down and talk about what happens after you pass away," she says.
Estate planning is one of those things that is put off for a rainy day, and often times, is put off until it's way too late. From Gessner's presentation, I have compiled her top five tips for establishing a top-knotch succession plan that will protect the family legacy for generations to come.
1. Make it a family business meeting. Don't conduct the conversation over the holidays, and set the meeting at a neutral location, where family members can be treated as equals throughout the planning process.
2. Wills, trusts, business structure, charities and future plans are best discussed by creating a management team to help the process; this might include a lawyer, financial advisor, accountant, insurance agent and trust officer. This team will help achieve the objectives of those creating a succession plan.
3. Before meeting with the estate-planning team, ask yourself the following question: What do I really want to happen to the family farm? Set goals, both short-term and long-term, to make a concrete plan and, as Gessner puts it, "take the beast out of estate planning."
4. Gessner said other emotional topics that must be tackled are decisions on the care of minor children or aging parents, deciding when to retire, who to involve in the operation, and writing down wishes for future medical procedures.
5. Finally, just get started. “You can have the best estate plan between you and your spouse, but if it’s not written down, it’s just a really great conversation about the farm. Although it’s incredibly difficult to sit down and tackle this emotional subject, it will lead to better communication and a smoother transition of your operation in the long run," explains Gessner.
So, have you had the tough conversation with your family members? Do you have a working estate-plan in place? What were the toughest issues to sort out in your experience? What advice would you have for other producers regarding the process? And, additional information on transitioning the family farm, see the BEEF estate planning page.