Content Note: Ableist language
Dear Captain Awkward,
I have what might be a very unusual question, as it relates to something rather far off in the future but here goes. My husband and I have very similar goals, except for where it comes to a pretty decided split. We want to create a “family farm” as it were, mostly to provide for our kids and if there becomes a time there is extra, to be able to eventually profit a bit. I have a few step-kids whom I love, and two sons. We want to place the farm in a trust for our children. Difference being, he’d like to leave the house and farm and care of said farm under my stepson with Downs Syndrome. I understand wanting him to always have a place to be. That’s never an issue, I’ve made that clear. But he seems to have a very high and unrealistic opinion of this child’s character and capabilities, and although is fairly smart for someone with Downs, is very resistant, difficult to teach and work with, naturally lazy and given the choice would far rather be in front of a television than anything else, especially unsupervised.
The executor of the trust is supposed to be his older sister, who although is fairly responsible will likely have nothing to do with the building of this place and doesn’t know how to do anything with farming. By contrast I have spent a pretty decent portion of my life doing so. My sons are young but industrious, and in all likelihood, it will be mostly off of their backs and mine that we are able to pull this off (if we can). I worry that they will be, not necessarily cut out but left with not much claim on what they work hard to establish with me, and possibly have to watch it decay. When I bring up my concerns, my husband simply says that I don’t have enough faith in my stepson. I’m not trying to be mean but I am being realistic, and before this venture is set in stone I’d rather know that I am not going to create something only to have it run into the ground, rendered useless to any of our children. I don’t mean to be disparaging but what am I to think? How do I tell him that this is something I can’t get on board with, and I’d far rather give up my dream, skip the trouble and leave my stepson with a reasonable home to live in and care for than to leave an entire farm under his care, which even people with full reasoning can easily fail at? Although I don’t want it to be, it’s becoming almost a deal breaker in my head as I feel like I’m almost going to be blatantly used to create a successful enterprise just to make sure this child is cared for…which would be fine if it didn’t mean it had to depend on this boy to survive. What do I do? Am I being selfish??
-About to Let It Go
Hello About To Let It Go:
You are correct that this is not my usual sort of question, so I’ll start with some timely advice from an expert. In the words of Chris Newman from Sylvanaqua Farms, “Please don’t start a farm with your partner without doing couples counseling first.” There is a lot to work out here, and having some kind of formal process with neutral referees (a couples’ counselor to work through feelings, plus attorneys who specialize in estate planning for farms and trusts for disabled heirs to set things up in a way that your stepson doesn’t lose access to other benefits ) is probably not the worst idea.
I’m neither an attorney nor a couples counselor, but I can see when assumptions have been stacked like cards into an unstable structure. For instance, I think you are right to be extremely wary of a situation where the estate is entailed upon the eldest male heir, for so many reasons!
A more stable structure might look like this:
- Your husband puts aside a good chunk of money in trust for his son NOW, to be administered by his daughter after he dies. This money is completely separate from the farm, and there is no expectation that his son will ever work on the farm or have to “earn” long-term care and support, nor is his well-being at risk if the farm fails.
- You and your husband buy a farm together as 50/50 partners and create a separate business entity for the farm. Spell everything out: up-front financial contributions, ongoing in-kind contributions of labor & expertise, profit-sharing, what happens if the farm fails/the marriage fails, all of it.
- You and your husband both draw up wills that allow you to hand down your 50% ownership share to your children as you wish after you die. At the time of inheritance, one kid or set of kids could choose to buy the others out, or they could all agree to sell the whole deal and split the proceeds, as is done whenever one piece of property is left to multiple heirs. It will be completely up to them (you’ll be dead), and your husband can rest easy knowing that your stepson will be cared for because that was all arranged long ago with a separate pool of money.
- In the meantime, if your sons decide that they want to work on the farm, the farm business entity should pay them fair wages* for their labor and distribute periodic bonuses based on any eventual profits. An income now > “This will all be yours someday” promise that pits your sons against their step-siblings. This also frees your sons up to leave the farm and pursue other careers if they wish, and you to pay for other labor, without anyone being held prisoner to sunk cost fallacy.
[*Note: If your husband can’t afford to put some money in trust now (or, say, set up a designated life insurance policy) in order to separate long-term support for his son from the farm, and if you don’t anticipate being able to afford wages for farm labor once you’re underway, then that makes it pretty simple: You can’t afford a farm and should probably do something else entirely!]
This is only only one of many possible structures, hashing out the details is what the couples counseling and the lawyers are for, probably. My main goal in outlining each step was to encourage you & your husband to spell things out very clearly from the start, remove magical thinking as much as possible, and to leave all of your children with maximum freedom & options vs. making their future dependent on a risky venture that is more about your & your husband’s dreams than their own.
But, before I leave you, I’m also going to suggest some questions, as well as shifts in language and attitude, to help you on your way.
- If you and your husband had zero children between you, would you still start a farm together? Are you starting a farm because of a fantasy of leaving a certain kind of legacy for your children, or are you starting a farm because you both want to spend the next couple of decades farming? One of these is a good reason to start a farm together, the other one is actually terrible. My vote is do it for yourselves, present tense, or not at all.
- Are your sons actually interested in farming as a career? Are you sure? Have you asked them lately? If so, if it’s really in the blood, what’s stopping you and your sons from creating a family farm as a joint business, with your husband in more of an investor/silent partner role?
- Speaking of, in a perfect world, where would your stepson actually like to live? It might not be “on a farm, with my brothers who resent me, forever, because my dad set it up that way.”
- Replace “industrious” and the ableist “naturally lazy” with “interested in farming” vs. “deeply uninterested in farming” and you’ll immediately get to better questions. Regardless of relative capability, does it make sense to build a farm for decades and then leave it entirely in the hands of the family members who are the least interested in farming? No! If your husband makes that a condition of starting a farm, then yes, you are right to say, “we either leave it to all of our children and put that in writing from the start, or we don’t do it at all” and hold firm. But you can get there without belittling anybody.
I hope this helps!
An Inside Kid who is “naturally lazy, and given the choice would far rather be in front of a television than anything else, especially unsupervised.”