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Divorce Becoming a Major Factor In Farming

The rule of thumb is that 50% of marriages end in divorce, and the probability is over 75% if you run a family business. The added stress of managing a business and working with in-laws can negatively impact a marriage. Although farm families lag societal trends due to their conservative values, the number of farm divorces is quickly catching up to the mainstream. Within the next decade, more farms will become insolvent due to complications caused by divorce than during the 1980s farm crisis. Divorce is more likely to impact a farm’s solvency than all other risk factors combined.

Because of this trend, many families are circling the wagons, trying to retain family wealth. Yet, I would argue that the fear of divorce is a bigger problem. I have insisted on farmers getting prenuptial agreements signed and might still do so in the future. I could equally argue against the notion.

First of all, almost any lawyer will tell you that prenuptial agreements don’t always hold up in court. The same lawyer arguing that a prenup is a legally binding agreement will two hours later argue the exact opposite for another client. The law is gray on these matters.

More importantly, I’m concerned about preventing the divorce. A prenuptial is actually a big precipitating factor.

When a bride or groom signs a prenup, he or she feels excluded emotionally from the success of the operation and emotionally detached. You’ll often see that when a prenuptial is signed, the daughter-in-law isn’t driven to see the farm succeed because someday she might be shoved out. She’s more likely to seek off-farm employment instead of staying on the farm after having kids because she’s looking out for her career instead of putting equal effort into helping the farm grow.

Often, prenuptials are asked for the week before a wedding. Those moments never go well, and for many couples, it’s the start of when things begin to go wrong. It’s even worse if it’s asked for after the wedding.

Commitment is what makes a family farm succeed. If a bride has signed a prenuptial agreement, then she has no skin in the game and no affiliation with the farm. She will feel like an outsider. She may live on the farm, but it’s her husband’s farm, not their family farm.

During tough times, she will stick with the marriage. If the bride grows to despise the farm and the in-laws because they made her sign a prenuptial agreement and were involved in other nasty events, then she might be keen to leave the whole mess behind. This kind of bride can become the farm’s worst enemy!

I attended a farm management competition in New Zealand, where I talked to one of the judges. I asked him for his evaluation criteria. He said, “I talked to all the wives, and that’s how I made the judgment.” I was interested in management issues at that time and thought he should be judging based on production or return on investment.

He said, “I know who’s going to be the successful farmer in 10 years by talking to the wife. In the end, if the wife is supportive and wants the farm to succeed, it will. If the wife doesn’t really care, she’s not going to be kicking her husband out of bed at 5 a.m. when the alarm rings. She’s going to allow him to hit the snooze button. It’s these things that make a farm succeed.”

I initially disagreed and thought that it was a chauvinistic statement. Today, I think it’s very true. Whether the spouse is male or female, it doesn’t matter. Just think about any of your successful farming neighbors and look at their spouses. They might not get dirt under their fingernails, but it’s their level of emotional support that plays a role in the ultimate success.

The spouse’s initial level of interest in farming prior to the marriage is a small factor. The bigger determining factor is how supportive the spouse is on the couple’s fifth anniversary. Is it “my spouse’s career” or is it “our farm?"

More often than not, when a couple marries, the in-laws are still involved in a business partnership. For most farms, the key determining factor in whether the bride or groom stays engaged is how the in-laws treat (or mistreat) the newlywed bride’s or groom’s farm involvement. A prenup is definitely a good way to start things on bad footing.

So the real question is how are you welcoming the daughter-in-law into the family and the family business? Two years later, does she feel a part of the family, or does she feel like an outsider, temporarily residing on your property? It’s this emotional connection that will determine the success of both the marriage and the family business in the long term.

Instead of circling the wagons to exclude new brides from the business, the question every family should be asking before the wedding is how to emotionally engage the new bride so that she loves the farm and the extended family as much – if not more – as the groom does.

Editor's note: Ag Management Consultant Mark Andrew Junkin can be reached by phone at 519/348-9994 or online at

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