Effective Estate, Succession and Business Planning for Farmers

Monday, March 19, 2012

Family Farm businesses are unique. Family farming may be the only industry where the owners live and work in the same place. Farm children grow up going to work with their parents every day. Many farm children ultimately become next-generation owners of the business.

But while they are family owned and oriented, most farming operations are also sophisticated and complex, capital intensive, multi-million dollar businesses. Farmers must be scientists, financial managers, personnel specialists, mechanics, and gamblers. They must also be well versed in land management, and government programs, including "Oil and Gas" lease issues and Wind and Alternative Energy leases and programs.

Family farm businesses are unique

Over nearly 30 years of representing family farm businesses, I have observed that an essential part of their success requires careful Estate, Business and Succession Planning. Because farm businesses are a mix of family and farming there are unique Estate Planning concerns that must be addressed. At the same time, because of the complexity of farm businesses, advisors must have a sound knowledge of the industry. Land use rules such as the Michigan Farmland Preservation Program (P.A. 116), the Michigan Land Division Act, the real estate and transfer tax rules for Agricultural property and homesteads, and Federal Land Programs need to be considered. When setting up a business entity such as a Corporation or Limited Liability Company (LLC), it is important to know not only what the tax consequences of such an entity will be to the farmer, but how federal and state government programs will treat them. It is also important to know how the Secretary of State will view the transfer of trucks and equipment within such entities. Finally, consideration must be given to ensuring that adequate and thorough insurance coverage will be maintained.

Every significant participant in the family farm should have a personal Estate Plan, including appropriate documents designating appropriate distribution of assets and management of their affairs in the event of incapacity. A good, comprehensive Estate Plan should include, where appropriate:

• Trusts,

• Wills,

• Durable Powers of Attorney and

• Health Care Designation of Patient Advocate

Every significant participant in the farming operation should have their own estate plan

Importantly, the advisor needs to truly understand how these tools should be integrated to coordinate with the overall business and plan.

In today's farm industry, it is not uncommon for a farm to have several entities which may own "operations," land-holding entities, equipment, and other valuable assets. Part of the plan may be to segregate or compartmentalize different assets or asset groups. This can help with the incremental transfer of assets to the next generation and can also result in more effective asset protection for the owners. Entities and related tools which should be considered are:

• Limited Liability Companies (LLC's)

• Corporations (often "sub-chapter S" corporations)

• Land Ownership Agreements

• Lease Agreements for Farm Land, Oil and Gas, Wind, and Solar energy

• Equipment Lease Agreements

Occasionally, more sophisticated arrangement, like Family Limited Partnerships and special trust arrangements may be called for, but most often they can be handled adequately with the above listed tools.

When planning to transfer assets to the next generation, there are numerous concerns that both generations have. These concerns can create tension between the participants before and during the planning process. However, experience teaches us that we are better off to address the concerns head on and have a plan in place than to simply bury our heads and "hope." The current owners are often concerned that the next generation is not ready to shoulder the significant responsibility, that their decision-making is often driven by less practical and more theoretical objectives. They are fearful of over-extension of debt and of decisions that are not informed by experience. The older generation often perceives itself to be more frugal than the younger generation.

The younger generation can at times feel unappreciated and feel that the older generation's hesitance is holding the operations back. And, often, they are not given any concrete assurance that they will eventually play a significant part and become an owner of the farming business.

Reality is often somewhere in between. Good succession planning will allow the older generation to transfer significant wealth to the younger generation, but retain substantial control over the operations. It can also assure desired income for retirement to the transferring generation. With proper planning, we can transfer wealth, reduce or eliminate taxation, and give the younger generation an incremental part in the business and—eventually—succession to ownership.


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