Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Comment: Farmers need to look mortality in the eye and make a will

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Stock photo
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

"Was there a will?" or "who got the place?" are questions which are still commonly (if quietly) discussed in the outer circle of mourners at the funeral of a farmer.

That these conversations take place show that, while farming has progressed on other fronts, its well known that the approach to succession can be stubbornly archaic.

A Macra survey from a few years back found that almost half the farmers aged over 50 hadn't identified a successor. Remarkably similar figures have been reported in other studies and jurisdictions.

When it comes to "successor identification" in a farming context, while it could mean that it hasn't been decided who is going to get the farm, it could just as easily mean that they haven't been told.

Either way, it suggests that there hasn't been any substantive discussion on the matter between the parties concerned.

Farm families who haven't experienced some kind of strain over inheriting land are as common as hen's teeth. It might just be a coolness at family functions. Or a split that widens down the generations.

It also seems there is very little chicanery which hasn't been done to acquire land. In my extended family, there is a story, from the mid-20th century, of a father who levered a farm out from under his own widowed daughter to give to his son, ie into the family name.

So why are farmers slow to consider a transition?

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Among the fears is that, because farming is a low-income business, if the reins are handed over, they could end up without enough to live on. Or, in the event of a relationship breakdown, that the farm could be broken up or sold off. Out of the family name, even!

Another reason, identified in an American study, is that farming is such an intrinsic part of farmers' identity that they find it difficult to countenance retirement.

But there are now several options which allow for an orderly handover.

If a conversation is to be instigated, it needs to be by the person with the power, the one with their name on the deeds.

A few years ago, a female farmer of my acquaintance who had land in her own name told me how two of her large number of children sat her down and asked her about her will. (She didn't tell them; she was keeping them all on their toes.)

They wouldn't have seen themselves as being at the top of the pecking order - usually eldest son, any other son, daughter - so they probably felt safe enough in their questioning.

But some people spend much of their lives afraid of saying something that could jeopardise a possible inheritance.

For many, the daze they experience over the days of the funeral of a father or a mother may be as much about concern for their future as it is about parental loss. How pathetic is that, when power has been put before everything else.

The absence of a will, or a poorly written or unfairly conceived one, is a recipe for disaster, emotionally and practically. Often financially, too.

While some families manage to work things out amicably between themselves, the courts are always dealing with some family dispute over land.

It's tragic that siblings, who may have grown up genuinely loving one another, end up ripping each other to shreds, with the only big-time winners being the legal practitioners.

Perhaps there is a fear that making a will is an admission of being on a slippery slope of decay. But it's a sensible, mature, move. Whether 24 or 64, anyone with assets or responsibilities should have a will.

Farmers need to ensure that the solicitor they engage is familiar with this complex area, to ensure that the will is drawn up properly.

A useful starting point for those embarking on the journey is Teagasc's Farm Succession and Transfer Guide.

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