It only takes one small problem to make a big problem

After watching semis unloading at an ethanol plant make small problems that put a simple system into disarray, Myron Friesen reflects on how small problems in an estate plan can turn into bigger problems and fights for farm families.

Corn unloads through the grates of a grain pit.
While unloading corn at an ethanol plant, Myron Friesen noticed how one small problem can escalate into bigger problems.
Liz Harder / Grand Vale Creative LLC
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Have you ever been somewhere or been doing something where everything is just clicking along very well and then something that seems relatively small happens and it throws everything off course?

I don’t get to haul corn often, but when I do, I enjoy the break. Recently, I was hauling corn to an ethanol plant and at this plant there are 10 lanes for the semis, and the system is simple. The trucks start filling up lane 1 then lane 2 and they continue filling lanes until you get to the 10th lane and then you start all over again. That really only changes unless there is no line and it is a “drive through.”

It seems somewhat crazy that someone could screw that up, but the past two times I have been there, I have observed one person screw that up both days and everything immediately got confusing. Which lane should the next person who comes in go to? Should they go to where they know they should go or do they follow the person in front of them who screwed up the system?

As you would expect, I watched as trucks continued to come in and some went where they should go and some followed the person in front of them. You could tell by the pause on the road before turning in that the next driver always knew something was not right. Of course, doing this in front of 30 other trucks all seeing the drama unfold as we wondered not only which line the next truck would go into but also wondering which line would go next when it got to that point!

For some lines it did not affect them. But for other lines, a truck may have come in behind them but may end up going ahead of them. You could almost see the tension as some were thinking, “they better not go first” while other lines were thinking they should go first and maybe others had no clue what just happened. Imagine that. A larger group of people picking sides, judging and getting upset over a mistake one person made.


So, what could derail a farm plan when they had most of the things right? Maybe there is not a clear definition of who gets various land parcels or how land will be valued for a buyout. Maybe the rental rate is not defined.

I had one where the children got in a fight over the shop tools including a welder and air compressor. Really!? I had another where there was a lot of tension over the valuation of a 30 year old livestock facility. Then another where some assets had been bought jointly between a father and son and those assets were known by them but not well-documented. Another where a son in-law assumed that if the daughter he married predeceased her parents, he should get that share as if he were the heir. I’ve seen some where there’s question about adopted children or step-children. I have seen tension about who “gets the debt.” I’ve seen arguments between executors or powers-of-attorney or trustees when too many are listed.

Are you now imagining the potential for family members, spouses and others picking sides, judging and how quickly a small problem can become a larger problem?

There is the good old church campfire song that has a line “it only takes a spark to get a fire going,” and that is so true in many ways! In many cases, these “big” problems can be traced to a little problem. Whether your estate is big or small, keeping your plan simple and defined can minimize the chance of one thing messing it up.

Myron Friesen is the co-owner of Farm Financial Strategies Inc. in Osage, Iowa. He can be contacted at 866-524-3636 or

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