Choosing an Estate Planning Attorney for Your Family Farm

Farmer and grandson on tractor

We've written before in this space about choosing a probate and estate planning attorney.

Obviously it's important to choose someone who's experienced in estate planning and probate law and who is ethical. But beyond that, does it really make a difference whom you choose?

If one of the assets for which you're planning is a family farm, the answer to that question is an emphatic "yes!"

Unique Planning Issues for Family Farms

Family farms are not like other property, for many reasons. Leaving aside financial complexities, family farms, unlike many other assets, have a legacy, a family heritage attached to them.

While it's important to have an attorney who understands what your farm means to you, there is also much more to planning for a family farm than honoring sentimentality. Many economic factors affect the value of a farm from year to year, which could have an impact on estate tax. Like other family businesses, some heirs may want to consider working the farm, and some might want to sell their interest in it. An estate plan needs to take this into account, so that there is a mechanism for the heir who wants the farm to have the liquidity to buy out siblings.

What happens to the farm after the current generation's death is not the only issue. For many farming families, most of their assets are tied up in the farm. If mom or dad need long-term care as they age, there's a very real danger that farm assets, or the farm itself, will need to be sold to pay for their care. If that happens, all their hard work, and plans to pass the farm on to another generation, vanish into thin air.

Why You Need an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney for Your Family Farm

Due to the issues family farms can present both before and after the death of the current owner, it's essential to work with an estate planning attorney for your family farm who has experience handling the complexities that farm planning presents.

Like other estate planning attorneys, your attorney should be able to plan for the transfer of your family farm from one generation to the next, with attention to creating an equitable situation between those heirs who want to work the farm and those who may not.

Ideally, though, your attorney's skills will address more concerns than simply transferring assets. You should look for a farm planning attorney who is experienced in:

  • Tax law, to prevent the government taking an unnecessary share of the estate;
  • Asset protection law, to help protect the farm from creditors and lawsuits;
  • Elder law, to use Medicaid planning to protect the farm from being liquidated to pay for nursing home care

The best attorney for your family's needs will be able to choose from a number of planning tools, including special use valuations, irrevocable trusts, life insurance planning, and limited liability companies, to protect your family's agricultural operation. You need someone with a "big picture" orientation who will take your family's unique circumstances into account and develop a plan with your overall needs in mind. A good farm planning attorney will work with you to maximize your farm's value.