What happens if a farming heir dies first?

No one wants to think about it, but sometimes farm succession plans need contingency plans in case things don't work out the way you expected.

Even the best succession plan can't guard against life happening. (Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC)

If I could just buy one more piece of land. If I could just buy one more tractor. If I could just build one more barn. If the market would just go up one more time. If it just rained one more time. If I just had this one tool I could fix that. If I just get one question answered I could decide.

Life is full of “one more things.” Estate planning meetings usually includes a series of “Oh, and just one more thing …”. What happens if land prices go to $20,000 per acre? What happens if land prices tank again like in the '80s? Will all my children be married? Will any of my grandchildren farm? Will any of my children get divorced? How much would long-term care cost? What will the federal estate tax limit be? Will our state estate tax limit change? What if an in-law causes problems?

So the meeting proceeds but I am waiting for the one question and it has not come up yet. I’ve answered many “just one more thing” questions but I know there is another one. Then it gets kind of quite like they can’t think of any other questions but I know they have another question. Then they say, “Oh, and just one more thing: What happens if my farming heir passes away before I do?” That is a tough question for any parent to ask or even think about, but it’s real and it’s a good question.

For many farm families, much of your plan is focused on giving your farming heir an opportunity to continue the operation. Then if something tragic occurs and you lose a child, the plan that you carefully thought over suddenly takes a turn. What happens then?

For some families, the plan may be locked down and there are limited options for change. With other families, the plan may maintain some flexibility. What does that mean for your farming heir’s family? Does that mean everything that your child worked for goes away? Does that mean the opportunity for their children evaporates? Does that mean another one of your children has the opportunity to farm in place of the one you had previously given the opportunity?


Of course, if I knew just one more thing, I could answer the question better, because the answer may vary depending on when that happens. If something like that happened shortly after a farming heir started farming, or if they were not married or didn’t have children, that may affect your answer. On the other hand, if they had been farming with you for over 20 years and they have a farming heir of their own coming right behind them, then it may not change anything at all.

From the farming heir’s perspective, they may hope that nothing changes because they would want their wife or children to be able to continue or to get the deferred value of the farm. Let me ask this: It sounds devastating to have a child predecease a parent but a child’s death could come three years before you or three years after you. We don’t know that. Now would you change your mind knowing their death could be right after yours?

Some parents may want some flexibility to make a game-time decision until the day they die. You never know what the future holds and it may be understandable if they want the option to make changes.

Oh, if we just knew one more thing. But then again, I’m glad we don’t.

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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