Chapter 2 - Articulating Your Goals (with or without family)

Begin by thinking about what you want most— to see your land remain undeveloped forever? to maintain family harmony? to ensure financial security? to preserve flexibility for your heirs? You may want to rank your goals in order of their importance, and list any challenges standing in the way of those goals.

If you own your land with others, your next step will be to talk about your goals with your spouse or co-owners and try to incorporate shared goals and values as you lay the foundation for your plan for the future of the land.

If you have children, it’s up to you to decide to what extent you want to involve them in determining the future of your land. Every family’s situation is different. Involving your family can help avoid conflict and get their buy-in. In planning for the future of the land, families may be forced to face difficult subjects, such as aging, death, and how family assets are to be distributed among family members.

Discovering your family members’ needs and wishes can take place either at a family meeting or through individual conversations when there is a good opportunity to talk. Be sure to choose the strategy that will best fit your family’s style. No matter the strategy chosen, your goal is to get a sense of your family’s personal and financial goals and how they feel about the land. These discussions are an opportunity to gain an understanding of your family members’ wants and needs, gather questions, and discuss options. In doing so, you’re also creating a protocol for honest, productive, and respectful family communication.

A family meeting is a forum in which family members can share their ideas and concerns. The goal of the family meeting is to give individual members the opportunity to express what the land means to them as well as their financial or practical needs, and to allow the family to hear the needs and wants of others. This can be accomplished by simply asking each person to talk about how he or she feels about the land. Is it a priceless family heirloom to be protected at all costs? Is it a financial asset and nothing more? Or is it something in between? By listening to one another, family members may learn that they share certain feelings about the land—or, just as important, that there are differences. Together, this information can guide your next steps and inform your work with estate planning professionals. It may be helpful to have an estate planning professional attend a family meeting to provide technical information and answer questions directly. 

Equal vs. Equitable Treatment
From the time their children are very young, most parents strive to treat each child the same. When it comes time to plan the future of your land, it’s important to realize that it’s possible to treat your children equitably, or fairly, without their inheritances being precisely equal. You may not have enough assets to give your heirs shares of equal value, and different heirs may be carrying more of the management responsibility or costs for the land. If you set up an honest conversation and a fair process to determine your children’s needs and values, you can still treat them equitably without dividing all your assets into equal shares.

Perhaps other assets, like a life insurance policy or proceeds from the sale of a house, can go to one child while the land goes to another. Maybe selling a house lot will provide enough income for one heir so that another can receive the land. Giving your land to each heir in equal parts can set the stage for the undesirable outcome of further dividing or selling the land to generate enough income for one uninterested heir.

If you set up an honest conversation and a fair process to determine your children’s needs and values, you can still treat them equitably without dividing all your assets into equal shares.

Sometimes a family’s history or dynamics prevents them from having healthy conversations about what to do with the land. However, avoiding these important conversations and letting your family figure it out after you are gone will likely lead to even more tension. A neutral person or professional facilitator can often help guide these difficult conversations; alternatively, simply having individual conversations with family members can be a good strategy.

A professional facilitator is trained to assist people in conducting healthy conversations and reaching consensus. A facilitator can help organize meetings, make sure each family member is being heard, and move the process forward by setting deadlines and following up.

Though your goal may be to get your family to agree on a plan for your estate, there may be situations in which families are not able to work together or agree. In this case, you need to be prepared to take the input you have received; work with the necessary professionals; and do what you believe is right for yourself, your family, and your land. Do not get paralyzed by family disagreements. If you avoid planning because people don’t agree now, you can be sure the conflict will be greatly exacerbated aft er you are gone.

Maintaining momentum after you have determined your goals for the land is important. A list of questions and information needs you collected when setting your goals will help determine your next steps. This list can help guide you to the most appropriate estate planning professional to meet your needs.