By Bill Cook
MSU Extension Forester and Biologist – retired
Considering heirship can be difficult for some, as it involves recognizing our inevitable mortality. However, mapping out the future will not only help ensure the legacy of your hard work, but can also help prevent a family fracture.
Consider family “A”. Mom and Dad were excellent forest stewards. Their forties were well-tended. They were members of the relevant associations. Their lifelong work received awards and recognition. After their deaths, the sons slicked-off the forties and sold them off to various new owners. A legacy vanquished.
Consider family “B”. The will left by Mom and Dad gave the forties to only grandsons, although most of their offspring were women. Nobody in the family knew about these directives in the will. Arguments ensued. Hard feelings grew. The grandsons abused the woodlands and eventually sold them off to pay for bad habits. To this day, different factions haven’t spoken to each other.
Now, for some folks, the fate of their forestland doesn’t matter. However, the fate of the family, and family relations might. In most cases, it’s worth the effort to chart a path of heirship that is communicated with the family, with an emphasis on the communication.
It’s important to understand that “fair” is not necessarily equal. Maybe one kid has a special interest in the forest and has helped all along in the management. Maybe that kid should inherit the forest and the other kids can have other assets. Or maybe the good neighbor should receive first shot at purchase. There are numerous ways to skin this cat. “Equal shares” is not necessarily fair. It depends upon the family, and choices aren’t always easy. However, “doing nothing” can contain its own pandora’s box. And the probate system, while fairly clear in most cases, may not yield the best outcome for the family and most certainly not for the woodland.
Forest parcelization is one of the greatest threats to American forests. Quarter sections become forties. Forties become tens. Sizes become too small to manage and multiple ownerships grow unwieldy. Decadence proceeds. Forest pests and exotic species win the day. The fate of forestlands is compromised, as well as all the goods and services that stem from forests. This benign neglect is another serious forest threat.
Ownership of most of the eastern forest remains in the hands of families. The matriarchs and patriarchs are passing on. Our forestlands are in the midst of a huge ownership turnover. Person by person and family by family, the tide of parcelization might be curbed by better heirship planning with the help of estate planning lawyers. A professional estate administration lawyer can help families about the proper handling of an estate.
There exists a suite of heirship vehicles, including wills, different trusts, LLCs, conservation easements, land conservancies, and others. Finding the right lawyer, estate planner, or other qualified person can go a long way in creating a transparent future and maintaining family harmony. Of course, most actions can be modified down the road, as situations change.
The “Ties to the Land” program has many excellent ideas and exercises that facilitate ownership migration. The program has occasionally been offered though MSU Extension. The farming folks have figured out some of these alternatives, but forest ownership is not the same as farmland.
Lastly, knowing the boundaries of a parcel is critical, whether you’re inheriting or selling. Oftentimes, surveyed corners don’t exist. Old fence lines and similar boundaries are often in error. This error can cause legal issues down the road with timber sales, road building, and other management activities. Buyer beware! Should such a property be inherited or purchased, spend the few thousands of dollars for a legal survey and monumentation. The cost can also be worked into the sale price.
Forest ownership is a privilege among the minority. Long-term care, including heirship, leads to stronger families, healthier forests, and more community benefits. Think about it. Before it’s too late.