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What Are the Minimum Legal Documents a Farmer or Family Business Owner Must Have?

These are still the minimum legal documents every farmer — actually every adult — should have in place to assist family members, other loved ones, business associates and others who might become involved, in case you become disabled or die.

There are five fundamental estate planning documents that every farmer, family business owner, or every adult, should have prepared and properly executed. They are clearly outlined in the article “Five documents every farmer should have” from Ag Week. However, as reported as recently as January 2019 from AARP, six of 10 seniors don’t have a will. The number of farmers who lack an estate plan is fewer, and probably even less have advance care directives. This is not good for them or their families.

Farm and ranch families often find themselves facing complicated issues about how the land should be divided among the next generation, and whether the next generation will continue to maintain the ranch or farm. This is something that estate planning addresses.

Many people think of the will as the estate plan. However, it is only part of the plan. The will says who will inherit property, including assets and debts, and who will be responsible for carrying out your directions. That person is the executor, who acts as your agent when you have died.

While there are online wills available, it is recommended that farm and ranch families work with an estate planning attorney. They are encouraged to meet with a few, until they find one who they are comfortable with and they believe has the experience that suits the family’s situation. The attorney will help with how property is titled and how to handle the tax implications. These are both important parts of an estate plan.

Every adult needs an advance health care directive, the legal document that specifies the medical procedures that they want to maintain life, if there is a health crisis. An advance directive usually involves a living will, and names a person as health care power of attorney to make health care decisions, when you are unable to do so for yourself.

The living will is used to specify the types of medical procedures you do or do not wish to have performed to keep you alive. Medical professionals or first responders often do not have access to this document and must follow their legal and ethical requirement to maintain life, in any way possible. Make sure this document is readily available and that other family members know where it is located.

Provide a copy of the living will and durable power of attorney to your doctors and the institutions that usually provide your care. The power of attorney should specify who has primary responsibility to make these decisions and at least one alternate.

Talk with your physicians about your feelings and wishes for these documents. They may also benefit from having the person you have named as your power of attorney with you at the time of the conversation. That way everyone is clear about what your wishes are.

A power of attorney is given to an individual, your agent, who can make financial decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. They can write checks, make deposits and have access to your safe deposit box. There will be forms to fill out, so don’t delay having them created and properly executed.

While it is not legally enforceable, write a letter of intention to accompany your will. Give a copy of your letter to your executor, and possibly to a trusted family member. This way, you can make sure they know:

  • Where important documents, including life insurance policies, savings accounts, loans, leases, titles to property and other legal documents are located.
  • Instructions for the care of minor children. Your will should name a guardian, but any information you can share about your children will be helpful.
  • Instructions of what you want to happen to the family land.

The more information you can prepare and provide for your survivors, the more likely your wishes will be carried out. It can also be psychologically soothing to know that you have communicated and legally documented your wishes for those who live after you.

Reference: Ag Week (April 5, 2019) “Five documents every farmer should have”

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