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Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D., FarmersÕ Forum columnist

Sibling rivalry is a troubling, but resolvable, farm issue

Few matters trouble parents more than witnessing their children quarrel, especially when the parents are involved in agriculture and their children dispute their inheritance of the family operation. Parents want to see their hard-won accomplishments used to continue a family legacy of successful agricultural production and not dismantled because of conflict among their successors.

When multiple siblings want to continue farming (ranching and other agricultural occupations are included here), they usually desire the same legacy as their parents, but unresolved rivalries can get in the way of settlement of the estate plan and carrying out their hopes. Sometimes the family conflict continues for more than a generation.

The agrarian drive to produce food and acquire the necessary land and operational facilities doesn't affect everyone the same way or isn't feasible for some descendants to carry out even if they want to farm. The emotional investment of children who don't farm usually differs from the siblings who want to continue the family farming operation.

One family estate matter I helped with involved six children, four of whom chose careers that did not include farming. To preserve their confidentiality I changed some details. Two brothers had already taken over the family farm operation, using their father's equipment.

They rented their extensive family farm for less than the going rate from their highly successful father, their only living parent. When their father and his attorney called the future beneficiaries together to review an estate plan, the children learned their dad, who included their deceased mother's wishes in the plan, wanted the farming sons to be able to purchase the large family farm holdings at a price well below market value, so as to keep the land among their descendants.

The four non-farming children objected, claiming they had worked as hard on the family farm while growing up as their two farming brothers. They joined forces to demand the sale of the land at auction after their father's death and equal shares in the estate.

They claimed their brothers who farmed had already received extraordinarily favorable treatment in the form of reduced rent and use of the machinery; they should have to purchase the family land at market price.

The two sons who farmed together agreeably contended that one or the other would have to move on, because their family farm, even though extensive, wouldn't support two families if they had to pay full market price for the other siblings' shares in the estate.

All the children were jockeying for personal gain but none was willing to give up anything. They had grown up with this mentality.

Being determined helped all of them become successful in their young careers, but it hindered them getting along as a family and would hamper development of their father's estate plan. Dad, a savvy gentleman who served on many boards, was looking for acceptable solutions for everyone when he contacted me.

What could be done to help this father and his children agree to a fair estate plan? Here is what happened.

All agreed to bring in a mediator and other expertise, such as legal advice and business planning; my role was to review matters only when requested. They agreed eventually that getting along together was most important in the long run; preservation of the family farm was next, followed by personal gain; a family corporation was established with equal shares owned by the children and their father.

With their mediator, the family members figured out ways to not compete and to distance themselves by avoiding discussion of differences at family social get-togethers. They learned to bring up concerns in specifically designated business meetings.

Over several years, three siblings and their own families chose to move away geographically to pursue their own agendas. They happily participate in family traditions such as Christmas and in corporation meetings, but they don't compete.

It took several years for the children to learn in varying degrees how to settle family disputes, to stay at arm's length when upset with others and to not take things personally. Jealousies are now settled by the aggrieved parties privately, not in business meetings.

All the children realized the family farm couldn't continue if the farming siblings had to pay full price for their land; everyone agreed to value the family farmland at half the going price after their father passes and if they choose to sell their shares in the corporation. All would rent their land to the two farming brothers at a rate slightly below the county average rental rate.

The farming brothers agreed to provide gifts of $2,500 apiece annually for 10 years to their other siblings, as long as they are stockholders in the family corporation. The shareholders meet together at least once annually.

The concluding message is that getting along with family is as important as personal success, and the family farm can also survive.

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