Chapter 1 - Estate Planning is for Every Landowner

Your land is part of your legacy. You have been a good steward of your land, carefully making decisions about its use. Planning what will happen to your land after you are gone is the next critical step of being a good steward. In fact, it may be the most important step you can take as a landowner—not just for your benefit but for the benefit of your family, your community, and the land itself. Who will own your land, and how will it be used? What will your legacy be?

Making decisions about the future of your land may seem overwhelming. It can be difficult to initiate conversations with your family, to sort out the different professionals involved in estate planning, and to know how to take the first step. Try not to get overwhelmed—the hardest step is often the first one. This publication can help get you started, and discusses the types of professionals who will help make it happen.

An estate is the total of all your assets, which includes your land, house, and bank accounts, as well as any stocks and bonds. An estate plan ensures that your assets will be distributed in a way that will meet the financial and personal needs of you and your heirs. Although the phrase “estate plan” may bring to mind an image of a single all-encompassing document, an estate plan is best thought of as a combination of documents (such as a will) and tools (such as a conservation easement) that will achieve your goals when implemented together. Estate planning is not just for the wealthy or for those who own “estates”; if you own land, then estate planning is a necessary and valuable step for ensuring that the legacy of your land is a positive one.
Successful estate planning will help you meet your financial and personal goals as well as the needs of your heirs. Every landowner and every family is different; some have children who are prepared and excited to become the new owners of the land, while others are searching for creative solutions to relieve the financial pressure and responsibility of owning land. Landowners who do not have children may be seeking a way to maintain the land as forestland and find a suitable owner.

The good news is that land is a flexible asset that lends itself to creative solutions for gaining financial and personal value.

Successful estate planning will often avoid certain taxes, increase the assets given to your heirs, address your family’s goals for owning and using the land, ensure financial security for you and your family, and maintain good family relationships. If you do not plan your land’s future, the land will likely pass on based on the type of ownership in which your land is held. Failure to plan your land’s future may result in negative financial consequences, may allow the land to be treated in a way counter to your goals, and may lead to tension or animosity among your family members, which can last long beyond your passing.

Your land is likely one of your most valuable assets, especially if you have owned it for a long time and it has greatly increased in value. However, land is not like other assets. Because land can be connected to memories, experiences, and feelings not typically associated with other assets, such as stocks and bonds, your land may also have significant personal value. Dividing your assets among family members brings with it the challenge of providing for their financial as well as personal needs.
If you have family, some of them may be interested in receiving financial value from the land or obtaining a piece of land on which to build a home. Others may be interested in receiving personal value from the land by keeping it in the family and in its current or natural state. And, of course, it is possible that family members may want or need a little of both.

The good news is that land is a flexible asset that lends itself to creative solutions for gaining financial and personal value. Whether your intention is to keep the land in your family or not, it is possible to develop a solution to meet your needs and goals as well as those of your family.

Unfortunately, there are countless examples of landowners who put off a decision about their land until it was too late. The earlier you start your planning process, the more options you will have for your land.

General Estate Planning
Each landowner is different, so there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all estate plan. But there are three elements that are universal, which an attorney can help you craft relatively easily. Every estate plan, at a minimum, should include the following:

  • a will
    a legal document that specifies how your assets should be handled after you die
  • a durable power of attorney
    a legal document that specifies a person of your choosing to handle your financial affairs if you are unable to do so
  • a health-care proxy
    a legal document that specifies a person of your choosing to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so

Conservation-Based Estate Planning
This publication focuses on conservation based estate planning—those elements of estate planning that deal directly with the goal of keeping some or all of your land in its natural, undeveloped state. Most people understand their options to subdivide and develop their land. However, many are not aware of their land conservation options, the variety of helpful legal tools used for transferring land, and how using these tools separately or in combination may produce a result that better meets one’s personal and financial goals.