May-June 2007: Can their problem be solved?
I was surprised to see my letter in the February issue of Successful Farming magazine (p. 25). Thanks for giving the issue broad exposure.
Contrary to your assumption (and I cannot expect you to have all the facts), my parents did use professionals to set up the plan. They also wrote a letter to all the siblings explaining the farm transfer and reasoning behind it. That letter was out five years before Mom's change of will. Mom and Dad invited comments from the heirs; none came forward.
Living wills, powers of attorney, trusts, etc. had been set up to protect the plan. But when Mother, at 85 and in dementia, was taken by one of my sisters to an unknown attorney two hours away, he wrote a new will and power of attorney specifically excluding me and my brother. He did doubt what he was doing enough not to witness or notarize the signatures (the sister went to a car dealership to get that done), but he did what she requested.
I believe our sister thought Mom had piles of money, having only seen the appraisal of the farm after Dad died. All siblings were unaware of the full debt. When informed, they were suspicious that we dumped debt on our parents, which was illogical since we were on track to inherit the farm.
Our parents' letter to our siblings told of the debt load and the reason for giving the farm to us, who farmed with them for 25-plus years. They said we couldn't go on farming and buy out our siblings, too.
What do you do once it's done? Sue your mother? Even though we have a letter (written within 30 days of her changing the will) from the family doctor stating her frail mental condition, we didn't sue. I went to Mom and brought this problem up, and immediately she wanted to change the will back. I believe, given her dementia and age, she will do whatever anyone tells her to do. I was not about to reverse the will without communication with the others. But now that the others have been promised more assets, why would they give it up?
Fortunately, we have six more years on a lease. The debt will be gone by then. Maybe we can buy the other half back again. I say "again" because we feel we've already bought it through labor/management/equipment use these past years.
Enforcement through the courts is available to all of us, but in a family?
The original will -- leaving the farm assets to S.Y. and his brother and the rest to the other siblings -- was drawn up by professionals and communicated to the off-farm heirs.
Despite that, the heirs are at odds, family relationships are in tatters, and Mom and Dad's well-reasoned intentions have been overridden.
Agreements and legal documents, no matter how carefully prepared, can always be contested. And new advisers can always be found to serve as hired guns, no matter how weak or inappropriate the case.
S.Y.'s reluctance seems the only reason this family is not in court, and who knows how long it will last.
Parents, take close note. Don't just sign the documents and relax. Keep reviewing and recommunicating.