Q: I own land that I used to farm, as well as a business that I’m in with a couple of my children. Since my wife died, our family has been kind of fractured. Long story. I’m worried that when I make out a will, I’m going to make somebody mad and I don’t want to make anyone madder than they already are. What do you suggest?
A: I recently played my first round of golf. Ever.
I texted a friend whom I knew would be interested (actually, I figured he’d double over in laughter). He texted me back this sage advice, “Don’t despair if you are playing horribly. It’s always possible to play worse.”
That’s what I think about your question. You think things can’t get more messed up in your family? Trying dying without making out a will.
You own a business with “a couple” of your children, implying you are not in business with other children. So you must have at least three children.
After your wife died, you said the family fractured. This may be because she was the glue that held the family together. Or something happened at her death to cause ill will among some of your children.
Either way, it sounds like some of your children are not talking to one another. And some may not even be talking to you.
So, first of all, let me say I am sorry for all of this. I’ve seen this many times and each time is unique and uniquely painful.
Unfortunately in situations like this, feelings get hurt, motives get assigned, various factions dig in and the family cold war begins. Holidays are either frigid or just separate entirely. When opposing family members do talk, it may be distant and cool or heated and hollering.
It seems as if it couldn’t be worse. But, oh, it can be worse. So much worse.
If you die without a will, your various estate assets are likely to simply be divided equally among your surviving children. On face value that may sound fine.
But you said you own land. It sounds like it is farm land that you no longer farm. I’m guessing you may lease that land to a farmer, who pays you to farm on your land. Will your children wish to continue with that arrangement? Or will some of them want to sell the land?
What about the business you own with some of your children? Are they active partners? Did they actually buy in, or do they simply consider themselves part-owners because they worked in the business for so many years? If you’ve never actually sold them a portion of the business (that would involve a lawyer and legal documents, not just a handshake deal), at your death your business-partner children will find themselves co-owners of the business with your non-business partner children.
Something tells me that will not be pretty.
For the sake of your children, go through the process of making a will. Here are some steps to consider:
Picture your ideal outcome. Write out the end result you’d like to see on a piece of paper. Don’t worry about the rules or legalities. What ideal outcome would you want to see once you are gone? I know things are anything but ideal now, but what would ideal look like?
Pick your team. You won’t be able to do this by yourself. At a minimum you’ll need a good lawyer to help you draft a will. But I would suggest you bring in a financial person and a family person. You know what a financial person is. She helps you with the financial side of things.
But what is a family person? It’s not a family member, but someone with experience dealing with families. Messy families. Like yours. It may be a pastor, priest, spiritual advisor, counselor or trusted friend. But make sure this is someone unafraid to tell you the truth and who can help you make decisions. Because that’s what you have not done thus far.
Participate in the process. Don’t just sit back expecting your chosen team to make all the hard decisions. That’s not how this works. Their role is to help you understand the issues, what your realistic choices are and to help you make decisions. So expect to be fully engaged.
Promote the plan. You may choose to keep this whole process secret and thus (you may think) not rock the boat during your life. Your children will simply discover that you’ve drafted a will once you are gone and can agree or disagree on its value. That is certainly one of your options.
However, I would urge you to write, along with the critically important will and other estate planning documents your attorney may recommend, a legacy letter. A legacy letter is not a legal document and has no force of law behind it. It is simply a statement – your final statement – of what is important to you. In it you may state your values, ask forgiveness, grant forgiveness and ask of your family that they do the same for one another. Your family advisor may be able to help you write this letter. It will probably take some time, but it will be well worth the effort.
The time to avoid more conflict is over. Only you can begin the healing process.
No one can promise you tomorrow, so the time to do the hard thing…the right thing… is right now.
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