Dakota Farmer

Find right legal help for farm succession

A transition plan for the farm takes time, communication and the help of legal counsel.

Sarah McNaughton, Editor, Dakota Farmer

March 8, 2023

4 Min Read
person holding clipboard with papers and pointing with a pen.
TRANSITION PLANNING: Enlisting the help of an attorney experienced with estate planning and farm succession can give increased peace of mind to farm operators. wutwhanfoto/Getty Images

Creating a succession plan for the next generation to continue the farm is essential to a successful transition. The creation of these plans takes time, effort, communication and the enlistment of professionals for assistance.

Jesse Maier, associate attorney at SW&L Attorneys, practices in the areas of estate planning, guardianships and probates. “The first step is to just reach out and have a conversation with legal counsel about what you’re trying to do,” he explains. “Our clients are better served if they come in for the planning process with their wishes for their farm in mind.”

As a certified farm succession planner, Maier ensures all necessary meetings and conversations happen among farm partners, the next generation and others involved in the farm’s management. “If producers want to utilize it, farm succession coordination gives them the ability for more comprehensive planning and opens lines of communication between the owner of the farm operation and the rest of the family.”

The initial meeting solidifies the family’s goals to ensure they’re accomplished. Expectations such as a succession timeline, upcoming closing dates or other specific client needs are all addressed in the beginning stages.

“Once we have the succession outline,” Maier says, “we get to the real meat and potatoes of planning.”

Start plan early

Even for those who are thinking about transitioning the farm five or 10 years down the road, reaching out to an attorney can get the ball rolling. “They’re able to find out what their attorney wants to see from them over the years, and really feel prepared about the process,” he says.

The timeline for farm succession is unique to the operation and is influenced by those involved. “We’ve done plans in a matter of days, but it’s more typical with farms for around an eight-week turnaround,” Maier explains.

Having the tough conversations of what happens to the farm during the planning process can help avoid animosity while the plan is implemented.

“It’s difficult enough to transition an ongoing business, but there’s so many family ties, personal preferences and sentimental values associated with the family farm,” he says. “This adds a lot of elements to work with when mixed with the expectations for the next generation, and it has the ability to get messy really quick. While sitting down with the whole family isn’t the most fun in the moment, it can be an invaluable step.”

Not all plans are equal

Maier cautions against adding potential challenges to succession plans, such as equal division of land or poorly communicated plans.

“We see plans that aren’t put in place correctly, such as where land will be transitioned to the children upon death without provisions of how to divide the land or keep the peace down the road,” he says.

No matter the size of a farm business, creating a farm succession plan can help ensure your family farm’s legacy for generations to come. For more information on estate planning, visit swlattorneys.com.

Tips on selecting an attorney

The right attorney could make or break your farm succession plans. Hiring someone who specializes in estate planning will help ensure a smooth execution of your farm’s plan.

“Anytime you’re dealing with farm succession, you need someone who’s comfortable completing an actual farm succession plan,” says attorney Jesse Maier. “It can be quite a complex process, and you need legal counsel who are experienced in this area.”

Looking for references to estate planning and farm succession on advertisements or websites is one way to target legal experience. Talking with neighbors or friends about their succession plan advisers can be another way to find a skilled attorney.

“In our firm, we advertise these services for potential clients, and we do a lot of our work through word of mouth with previous clients as well,” Maier says.

Finding an attorney who is quick to respond and has an open line of communication with clients can keep frustrations out of the succession process. “Our firm makes a point for prompt and successful communication for our clients,” he says.

If you are looking to implement a succession plan in the future, consider any potential retirements when selecting your attorney. “You want to find an attorney who will be around for the next five to 10 years, whether due to retirement age or life changes,” Maier adds.

About the Author(s)

Sarah McNaughton

Editor, Dakota Farmer, Farm Progress

Sarah McNaughton of Bismarck, N.D., has been editor of Dakota Farmer since 2021. Before working at Farm Progress, she was an NDSU 4-H Extension agent in Cass County, N.D. Prior to that, she was a farm and ranch reporter at KFGO Radio in Fargo.

McNaughton is a graduate of North Dakota State University, with a bachelor’s degree in ag communications and a master’s in Extension education and youth development.

She is involved in agriculture in both her professional and personal life, as a member of North Dakota Agri-Women, Agriculture Communicators Network Sigma Alpha Professional Agriculture Sorority Alumni and Professional Women in Agri-business. As a life-long 4-H’er, she is a regular volunteer for North Dakota 4-H programs and events.

In her free time, she is an avid backpacker and hiker, and can be found most summer weekends at rodeos around the Midwest.

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