Planning Beats Avoidance

rural-216371_150Dear Liza: We live in Nebraska.  I own a ranch with my brother.  Part of it we inherited and a small part we purchased from family members.  The total value of the ranch is $2.7 million.  We have a buy sell agreement between us.  We have estate questions and aren’t sure where to go.  We each have other assets of approximately $2 million and $4 million respectively.  We have considered a trust; however I have two children and my brother has a second wife and four children.  We do not want our offspring to have to deal with each other.  

So, that’s a REALLY interesting question, and one that involves trusts, but only tangentially, really. The thing is, regardless of whether your estate plan consists of a Will or a trust, your families are most certainly going to have to deal with each other upon the death of you and your brother. You wrote that you own the ranch together….usually, siblings would own a ranch like that as tenants in common, which means that you each own one-half of it and are free to leave it to whomever you’d like to leave it to upon your death. (The less usual alternative, for siblings, would be as joint tenants, which would mean that the survivor would own the entire property at the death of one of you.)

Assuming you each own your half and can leave it at death to others, how on earth are you going to avoid each family having to work something out? Even a buy-sell agreement will require, at a minimum, that one family buys and the others sells, right? Placing your property into a trust will avoid having to go through probate, and gives you the opportunity to try and plan for reducing conflict down the road.  You can each place your interests in different trusts, and specify how each half should be managed upon your deaths.

If you don’t do a trust, then your estate will go through probate, and that in no way reduces the possibility of inter-family conflicts–in fact, it almost invites it, because probate is public, and all interested parties are required to get proper notice and have an opportunity to object to the proposed distribution. With a multi-million property on the table, I would advise you and your brother to hire a good estate planning attorney now to do what you can to anticipate problems and structure the management of the property down the road.