Succession Planning for Farm Transition and Estate Planning

If you think it’s bad that 60% of farmers don’t have a will, here’s what’s even worse: 89% don’t have a farm transfer plan, as reported in the recent article “10 Farm Transition and Estate Planning Mistakes from Farm Journal’s Pork Business. Here are the ten most commonly made mistakes farmers make. Substitute the word “family-owned business” for farm and the problems created are identical.

Procrastination. Just as production methods have to be updated, so does estate planning. People wait until the perfect time to create the perfect plan, but life doesn’t work that way. Having a plan of some kind is better than none at all. If you die with no plan, your family gets to clean up the mess.

Failing to plan for substitute decision-making and health care directives. Everyone should have power of attorney and health care directive planning. A business or farm that requires your day-in-day-out supervision and decision making could die with you. Name a power of attorney, name an alternate POA and have every detail of operations spelled out. You can have a different person to act as your agent for running the farm and another to make health care decisions, or the same person can take on these responsibilities. Consult with an estate planning attorney to be sure your documents reflect your wishes and speak with family members.

Failing to communicate, early and often. There’s no room for secrecy, if you want your farm or family business to transfer successfully to the next generation. Schedule family meetings on a regular basis, establish agendas, take minutes and consider having an outsider serve as a meeting facilitator.

Treating everyone equally does not fit every situation. If some family members work and live on the farm and others work and live elsewhere, their roles in the future of the farm will be different. An estate planning attorney familiar with farm families will be able to give you suggestions on how to address this.

Not inventorying assets and liabilities. Real property includes land, buildings, fencing, livestock, equipment and bank accounts. Succession planning requires a complete inventory and valuation of all assets. Check on how property is titled to be sure land you intend to leave to children is not owned by someone else. Don’t neglect liabilities. When you pass down the farm, will your children also inherit debt? Everyone needs to know what is owned and what is owed.

Making decisions based on incorrect information. If you aren’t familiar with your state’s estate tax laws, you might be handing down a different sized estate than you think. Here’s an example: in Iowa, there is no inheritance tax due on shares left to a surviving spouse, lineal descendants or charitable, religious, or educational institutions. If you live in Iowa, do you have an estate plan that takes this into consideration? Do you know what taxes will be owed, and how they will be paid?

Lack of liquidity. Death is expensive. Cash may be needed to keep the business going between the date of death and the settling of the estate. It is also important to consider who will pay for the funeral, and how? Life insurance is one option.

Disorganization. Making your loved ones go through a post-mortem scavenger hunt is unkind. Business records should be well-organized. Tell the appropriate people where important records can be found. Walk them through everything, including online accounts. Consider using an old-fashioned three-ring binder system. In times of great stress, organization is appreciated.

No team of professionals to provide experience and expertise. The saying “it takes a village” applies to estate planning and farm succession. An accountant, estate planning attorney and financial advisor will more than pay for their services. Without them, your family may be left guessing about the future of the farm and the family.

Thinking your plan is done at any point in time. Like estate planning, succession planning is never really finished. Laws change, relationships change and family farms go through changes. An estate plan is not a one-and-done event. It needs to be reviewed and refreshed every few years.

Reference: Farm Journal’s Pork Business (June 28, 2021) “10 Farm Transition and Estate Planning Mistakes

 

What is not Covered by a Will?

A last will and testament is one part of a holistic estate plan used to direct the distribution of property after a person has died. A recent article titled “What you can’t do with a will” from Ponte Vedra Recorder explains how wills work, and the types of property not distributed through a will.

Wills are used to inform the probate court regarding your choice of guardians for any minor children and the executor of your estate. Without a will, both of those decisions will be made by the court. It’s better to make those decisions yourself and to make them legally binding with a will.

Lacking a will, an estate will be distributed according to the laws of the state, which creates extra expenses and sometimes, leads to life-long fights between family members.  Property distributed through a will necessarily must be processed through a probate, a formal process involving a court. However, some assets do not pass through probate. Here’s how non-probate assets are distributed:

Jointly Held Property. When one of the “joint tenants” dies, their interest in the property ends and the other joint tenant owns the entire property.

Property in Trust. Assets owned by a trust pass to the beneficiaries under the terms of the trust, with the guidance of the trustee.

Life Insurance. Proceeds from life insurance policies are distributed directly to the named beneficiaries. Whatever a will says about life insurance proceeds does not matter—the beneficiary designation is what controls this distribution, unless there is no beneficiary designated.

Retirement Accounts. IRAs, 401(k) and similar assets pass to named beneficiaries. In most cases, under federal law, the surviving spouse is the automatic beneficiary of a 401(k), although there are always exceptions. The owner of an IRA may name a preferred beneficiary.

Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts. Some investment accounts have the ability to name a designated beneficiary who receives the assets upon the death of the original owner. They transfer outside of probate.

Here are some things that should NOT be included in your will:

Funeral instructions might not be read until days or even weeks after death. Create a separate letter of instructions and make sure family members know where it is.

Provisions for a special needs family member need to be made separately from a will. A special needs trust is used to ensure that the family member can inherit assets but does not become ineligible for government benefits. Talk to an elder law estate planning attorney about how this is best handled.

Conditions on gifts should not be addressed in a will. Certain conditions are not permitted by law. If you want to control how and when assets are distributed, you want to create a trust. The trust can set conditions, like reaching a certain age or being fully employed, etc., for a trustee to release funds.

Reference: Ponte Vedra Recorder (April 15, 2021) “What you can’t do with a will”

 

Trusts can Work for ‘Regular’ People

A trust fund is an estate planning tool that can be used by anyone who wishes to pass their property to individuals, family members or nonprofits. They are used by wealthy people because they solve a number of wealth transfer problems and are equally applicable to people who aren’t mega-rich, explains this recent article from Forbes titled “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy.”

A trust is a legal entity in the same way that a corporation is a legal entity. A trust is used in estate planning to own assets, as instructed by the terms of the trust. Terms commonly used in discussing trusts include:

  • Grantor—the person who creates the trust and places assets into the trust.
  • Beneficiary—the person or organization who will receive the assets, as directed by the trust documents.
  • Trustee—the person who ensures that the assets in the trust are properly managed and distributed to beneficiaries.

Trusts may contain a variety of property, from real estate to personal property, stocks, bonds and even entire businesses.

Certain assets should not be placed in a trust, and an estate planning attorney will know how and why to make these decisions. Retirement accounts and other accounts with named beneficiaries don’t need to be placed inside a trust, since the asset will go to the named beneficiaries upon death. They do not pass through probate, which is the process of the court validating the will and how assets are passed as directed by the will. However, there may be reasons to designate such accounts to pass to the trust and your estate planning attorney will advise you accordingly.

Assets are transferred into trusts in two main ways: the grantor transfers assets into the trust while living, often by retitling the asset, or by using their estate plan to stipulate that a trust will be created and retain certain assets upon their death.

Trusts are used extensively because they work. Some benefits of using a trust as part of an estate plan include:

Avoiding probate. Assets placed in a trust pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process.

Protecting beneficiaries from themselves. Young adults may be legally able to inherit but that doesn’t mean they are capable of handling large amounts of money or property. Trusts can be structured to pass along assets at certain ages or when they reach particular milestones in life.

Protecting assets. Trusts can be created to protect inheritances for beneficiaries from creditors and divorces. A trust can be created to ensure a former spouse has no legal claim to the assets in the trust.

Tax liabilities. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust means they are owned and controlled by the trust. For example, with a non-grantor irrevocable trust, the former owner of the assets does not pay taxes on assets in the trust during his or her life, and they are not part of the taxable estate upon death.

Caring for a Special Needs beneficiary. Disabled individuals who receive government benefits may lose those benefits, if they inherit directly. If you want to provide income to someone with special needs when you have passed, a Special Needs Trust (sometimes known as a Supplemental Needs trust) can be created. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2021) “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy”

 

Hurt Feelings, Family Battles and A Royal Mess

Without an estate plan in place, and that includes a will, power of attorney, and health care directives, dividing up an estate gets messy, fast. Preparing a will does not really take that much time, but it does require you to do some work, like making a list of your assets and sitting down with an estate planning attorney.

The title of this article from Zing! says it all: “What Happens If You Die Without a Will? You Might Leave Behind Hurt Feelings, Legal Battles and Chaos.” Dying without a will, means that your estate is “intestate,” and the rules of your state will dictate exactly what happens to your assets. You may not want your kid brother or the man you were divorcing to get anything but depending on your state’s laws and your marital state, that could happen.

In most states, your assets will pass to your kids and your spouse. If you don’t have any, your assets are passed on to your nearest living relatives. If your kids are minors, the court will decide who will raise them. A will is also about naming a guardian for your minor children and naming a person who will be in charge of your money to look after them.

When there’s no will, everything is decided by the court.

Having a complete estate plan is like a gift to your survivors. It tells them exactly what you want to have happen to your possessions, who you want to make decisions on your behalf for medical care if you are unable to, who you would want to raise your children and even what kind of funeral you want to have.

Here’s an example, let’s say that an adult is financially supporting a parent, even though the adult does not live with their parent. In New York State, if that person dies, their spouse inherits everything. If that person has a spouse and children, the spouse inherits the first $50,000 plus half the balance of the estate. The children inherit everything else.

The parent who was dependent upon the adult child, is left on their own. The parent would have to hope that her daughter-in-law (or son-in-law) would be willing to continue to help them. Basic estate planning could have set up a trust or other mechanism to support that adult.

Another concern: if you die without a will, it is more likely that people you don’t know, may try to fraudulently make claims on your estate. There may be bitter resentment, if one family member steps up to try to take charge of the process. That person will have to apply to the court to be appointed as the estate administrator. When that happens, your assets will be frozen. If no one wants to become the executor, the court will appoint a public trustee.

What if there’s not enough money to support the family and the family home needs to be sold? That would become a legal and financial nightmare for all concerned.

By sitting down with an experienced estate planning attorney, you protect yourself, your assets and your family and loved ones. You can determine how you want your assets to be distributed. You can also determine who you want to be in charge of your financial life and your health, if you should become incapacitated. With a will, power of attorney, power of attorney for healthcare, and other documents that are used, depending upon your unique situation, you can have a say in what happens and spare your family the legal, financial, and emotional stress that occurs when there is no will.

Reference: Zing! (March 4, 2019) “What Happens If You Die Without a Will? You Might Leave Behind Hurt Feelings, Legal Battles and Chaos”