Protect your legacy

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Farm Forum

My husband’s family owns a cabin on a lake in northeast South Dakota. Because of this we drive the same stretch of highway frequently between the months of April and October. The endless green rolling hills are always a beautiful and welcome change of scenery from the city we call home, and we often note the changes in the landscape that we see from time to time: a large new stone next to a driveway engraved with a last name, a barn roof collapsed from the recent wind storm, shiny new bins next to an old farmhouse. However, there is one farmhouse in particular that we have observed from the road over the years that still has me scratching my head and wondering what went wrong.

It is an old two-story farmhouse. The owners began making updates; one year they replaced the roof and the next a new porch was added. Then they began tearing down the siding and slowly replacing it with new, but unfinished, wood siding. What color would they paint it, we wondered? The summer came and went, but no paint or stain was applied. The spring came and the wood siding on the house still had nothing on it to protect it from the elements. Year after year, the wood remained bare. Rain, wind, snow and ice discolored the wood and after only a few years, the two-story farmhouse that had been restored a few years earlier, now looked more weathered, worn, and damaged than it had before the renovations were started. Why would these owners have gone through all of the work to remodel this house only to fail to protect their work with a little paint? Why would they have put in so much work and then quit, leaving their home exposed to the harsh elements?

I often wonder the same thing when I hear about a family left scrambling because a loved one died without a suitable estate plan. As estate planning attorneys, we see it far too often. Mom and Dad spend their lives on the farm, buying land as they can afford it and creating a legacy they hope to leave to their children. However, for whatever reason, they fail to take the final step in the process, and never create a written plan for sickness, incapacity, or death. Guardianships, conservatorships, nursing home stays, lack of clarity in a succession plan, complicated family dynamics, and disagreements over personal property which erupts into a family feud, these are the storms that can leave a family with nothing to show for a lifetime of hard work.

Creating a detailed, thoughtful estate plan is a necessary step to protect your life’s work, your legacy, from the unknown but inevitable, storms of life. The following are components of a solid plan:

1. A durable power of attorney to handle financial matters in the event of short term or long-term disability and to alleviate the need for a court appointed conservator.

2. A healthcare power of attorney to make medical decisions and to avoid the necessity of a court appointed guardianship proceeding.

3. A living will declaration to let loved ones know of intentions regarding end of life matters.

4. A last will and testament to distribute assets in a manner that is consistent with farm succession goals, if you intend to go through probate.

5. A revocable living trust to accomplish farm succession goals without going through probate.

6. A personal property distribution letter to detail the distribution of collectibles or meaningful one-of-a-kind items and avoid family disagreements over small, but not insignificant, items.

Don’t leave your work unfinished and your legacy exposed to the elements. Instead of thinking about an estate plan as something to eventually get around to, start thinking of it like it is: a necessary step to ensure that your hard work is protected. Contact a qualified estate planning attorney to discuss creating a personalized estate plan for your legacy. If you already have a plan, review it with an attorney to ensure that it is up-to-date in light of the current income tax and estate tax laws and that it continues to meet your legacy goals.

Mandy R. Gaikowski is an estate planning attorney in Sioux Falls. Her practice focuses primarily on estate and succession planning for farmers and ranchers. For more information, call her at 605.906.8118 or see www.epslawfirm.com.