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Including Spouses in Farm Planning

By Dr. Donald J. Jonovic

THE PROBLEM: Can spouses of owners and successors be included in planning the future without causing business, family, and personal problems?

Submitted by C.V., via email:Everything I know about farming I learned from my father-in-law, Kurt. Over those 10 years, his son (and my brother-in-law), Alex, worked for an international agribusiness, so Kurt depended a lot on my help. I now manage the farming almost single-handedly. Alex has returned as farm business manager. My wife, Mary, works with her father in the office.

Lately, they’ve started having what they call “board meetings,” which include Kurt, Mary, and Alex. I am not invited. I asked about that, and Kurt said those were family meetings. “Alex’s wife doesn’t come, either,” he said. 

Mary says not to worry. “We just have some family things to work out.” Is that fair? I’m a big part of the business.

Shouldn’t I be part of these meetings, too?

The solution:

The concept of bloodline is firmly rooted in family business culture. It’s a central provision in buy/sell agreements and transition plans. It drives decisions to require prenuptial agreements.

Problematic as that all is, C.V.’s question takes us even deeper to this fundamental question: Who, exactly, is family? More specifically, are in-laws family?

I think we can find our answer in two facts of family life, both of which put C.V.’s question in a much more useful light.

Fact 1: Every marriage results in one new and two changed families. Remember what happened the Thanksgiving after that first marriage of one of your children? You know, that painful discussion about which family would have the new couple for the holiday meal?

The expectation of both changed families: Of course they’ll be with us. This presents a wrenching dilemma to the new family. Any choice they make will certainly be painful for at least two of the three families.

Fact 1 tells us our nuclear family’s valued traditions, at best, can last only until our children marry. After that, the traditions from another family must be absorbed or the changes (and the in-laws who bring them) will be resented.

Fact 2: In-laws are, in most cases, a necessary condition for producing the family’s successor generations.

Fact 2 may seem obvious, even incidental, but the implication is profound. The concept of lineal descendant may be clear in law, but in the family context, it disregards half of the genes added in each generation.

Talk all we want about our direct descendants. In reality, every family’s bloodline broadens with each generation.

In biology and in love, our individual family lines are quickly submerged in new patterns of genetic and emotional threads.

Consider that the heirs in our next generation are actually lineal descendants of both halves of the extended family line. This means the spouses of our children have the same emotional commitment and genetic connection to their offspring as do we, and they share our concern for the future of what is built.

They, too, love their children and want to ensure the best opportunities for them. In this light, reconsider C.V.’s question. Mary’s family can’t ignore the possibility of divorce, and, for that reason, should ensure that assets being built for future generations stay in that inheritance line via buy/sells, prenups, and trusts.

The major mistake, one too often committed, is extending this thinking to the unconscious assumption that divorce is probable, thereby excluding spouses from ongoing transition planning that will impact the whole family’s future.

C.V.’s wife said he was excluded because they have “family things to work out.” I can’t second-guess what they’re specifically discussing, but common sense and experience teach me that including C.V. in those discussions won’t cause problems. It’s excluding him that will.

Assuming C.V. and Mary do have a sound marriage, excluding him not only is unfair but also is unwise.

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