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SUCCESSION FOOD CHAIN: Without proper planning, you may find yourself as prey on the farm or ranch. Consider the threat of predators when building a succession plan.

Protecting your operation from predators

The word “predator” takes on a new meaning when building a succession plan.

By Michael A. Dolan

Predators, depending on the day, can be your friend or your foe. The owls and foxes keep down the rodent population. Coyotes and mountain lions prey on cattle and sheep. When we think about our spouse and our family, it is nice to know we are at the top of the food chain.

But are we? And, if we are not, how do we protect ourselves and our family from a potential predator? Let me share an example.

Butch and Sally have been married for 30 years, and they have a son and a daughter. With the land Butch inherited from his parents and the additional property they accumulated working hard together, they now have a significant farm and ranch operation encompassing more than 3,000 acres. Everything is going well.

One Friday evening, Butch is returning from a hard day on the ranch when his truck is hit head-on by a drunk driver. Butch is killed instantly. The tragedy hits their operation hard, but Sally is determined to continue their way of life; and because of her strength and dedication, things are going well.

A year after Butch’s death, Sally meets Ed at the county fair. Sally and Ed begin to see more and more of each other, and a year later, Ed asks Sally to marry him. She is head over heels in love with Ed. She agrees, and they are married in an informal ceremony at the ranch. Ed has two children of his own, and he and Sally bring their families together, but they both struggle to develop a relationship with each other’s children.

Ed has substantial influence on Sally and quickly encourages her to begin to commingle their assets. He even convinces her to transfer substantial portions of the ranch property into his name. Unfortunately for Sally, she discovers that Ed is a predator of the worst sort and is having an affair. She now recognizes that she was being manipulated and taken advantage of. A divorce follows. Because she gifted some assets to Ed and commingled others, Ed walks away from the divorce with a substantial portion of the ranch.

Avoiding trouble

This outcome is all too common, but it doesn’t have to be. If Butch had prepared a well-drafted estate plan prior to his death, that plan could have provided substantial protections for the assets he left to Sally. It also could have contained provisions that would have helped her to protect herself — and her own portion of the assets — against a predator like Ed.

When we think about estate planning, we tend to think about it in regard to accomplishing a quick and low-cost transfer of assets. But, if that is your only focus, you are missing out on some critical advantages and protections that you can provide your family. When you decide to prepare an estate plan, you should learn what all the options and advantages are of a well-counseled and fully implemented plan. There is much more available beyond simply focusing on transferring from husband to wife, or from parents to children. Don’t shortcut the opportunity and protections that quality estate planning can provide, because you and your family may not always be at the top of the food chain.

Dolan, an attorney, helps farm and ranch families achieve comprehensive estate, succession and legacy planning objectives. Dolan is the principal of Dolan & Associates P.C. in Brighton and Westminster, Colo. Learn more at his website,


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