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Sunrise Reflections on Estate Planning

Telling Your Story
by Bev Berens

Published: Friday, December 8, 2017

Had I not glanced up from an extra-early morning appointment with my computer, I would have missed it completely.

The sun hadn't yet broken the horizon, but the prelude to its entry was amazing. I was buried in thought and work, with pesky thoughts of some estate planning issues sneaking around the back of my mind.

The stunning oranges, pinks and colors that have no name were a special little present from God this morning. Leafless trees and branches created silhouettes on a color palette worthy of a spot in the finest art gallery.

The gift lasted only a few moments, but will be a reminder of God's presence for the entire day.

A rather long walk to get to the real subject—estate planning—but there is a connection. Wait for it.

Most of us wish to leave an estate—a gift—to our family or church or a cause to which we are particularly dedicated when we depart this earth. This is especially true for farmers, those of us who love the land. We hope to have instilled that same love into succeeding generations. We hope that at least one descendant will desire to carry on the farm tradition.

Just as each sunrise is different, each generation that farms the land is different and will try new approaches, technology and ideas to leave their mark on the land. That is how it's supposed to work. The next generation gets their turn at bat with farm ownership. But without some preparation on the succession side, the next generation walks into the game with a significant injury, and may never get the chance of ownership and carrying on the tradition.

I am neither lawyer nor accountant. But here a few generalities to think about before the professionals get involved.

1. This isn't great-grandpa handing over the horses' reins to junior anymore. The legalities and costs that are in place these days that great-grandpa never would have imagined or comprehend.

2. It's never too early to start.

3. Think multi-generationally. If you want to have the farm continue in the same family for additional generations, your succession plan, will and estate is not just about you. What is best for you personally at one point in time may not be best for a generational transfer 20-years down the road. There are compromises that must be made all around.

4. Find good legal council that specializes in agriculture and succession planning. Don't choose someone because they are the cheapest, or because that's who everyone else uses. Find someone who is thoroughly versed on current laws, and knows ag—preferably someone who is farming themselves in some way.

5. The responsibility is yours to make tough decisions and have tough conversations. Don't cop out by leaving big decisions for the next generation to handle. You may be surprised how once the door is opened, people are willing to have grownup conversations and make plans that will work for everyone.

6. Be honest. If you need to shout something off your chest, do it and be done with it. Then get over it. If you need to shed a few tears, the same advice applies.

Sunrises are beautiful gifts and fortunately have no strings attached. You wake up every morning and there is a new one. When you hand off the farm, there are sure to be strings attached—for example, capital gains. Just make sure that in your planning, you leave the attached strings long enough so that the next generation can open the package without spilling and losing the contents of the gift.

Bev Berens is a mom to 4-H and FFA members in Michigan. Do you have a story to share? Email her at

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