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The Family Farm: Pitfalls of Joint Property

Papa smoked Marlboro Reds his whole life and ate bacon three meals a day. He finally died at 97 in a freak tractor accident on the farm. He left behind a handful of scraggly chickens, a life insurance policy, and a hundred acres of land. His four children are the lucky benefactors of his estate:

  • two sisters who haven’t spoken civilly to one another in 25 years,
  • a brother living in Florida no one ever talks about, and
  • the lazier version of Papa-incarnate, Junior, who still lives on the farm but can’t be bothered to feed the scraggly chickens.

These four siblings now get to “share” their father’s lifetime of hard work. Papa, an old-fashioned sort, wrote a will before he died. In his will, he named his favorite son Junior (who starves the chickens and lives at home) as Executor of his estate. Junior promptly applied Papa’s life insurance proceeds to his back child support, told his siblings there’s nothing left but the chickens, and returned to Papa’s house, to live out the rest of his days in lonely comfort. The two sisters now must decide whether to put aside their differences (arising from a shared lover when they were teenagers) or team up with Brother-In-Florida-They-Don’t-Talk-About.

In this case, the will itself is not really contested. Everyone agrees that Papa is dead, that this was his will, and that by leaving Junior in charge, he left a big mess for everyone. But, it’s still an estate case with lots of issues. These four kids who don’t like one another must sort out the cash and the family farm. The problem of the chickens, at least, will sort itself out on its own. Junior, as Executor, has breached his fiduciary duty to the estate beneficiaries (his siblings) by paying off his personal debts from the life insurance proceeds instead of disposing of it properly under the terms of Papa’s will.

Junior wants to stay on the farm, rent-free, forever. Sister 1 wants to sell the property outright. Sister 2 is sentimental and, despite not liking any of her siblings, wants to perpetuate the legacy of the “family land.” Florida-Brother is ambivalent and just wants to stay out of it. Papa would roll over in his grave if he could see the fight which ensues.

The above situation presents a variety of legal options. The three siblings have a great claim against Junior for misuse of the estate funds. The land division also presents a number of possibilities. Keep it? Sell it? Share it? While an efficient resolution would be best for all involved, the siblings all have competing emotions and interests that inhibit a speedy resolution.

Possible Solutions:

  1. Sell the land and divide the proceeds by 4, deducting Junior’s mishandled share of the life insurance.
    1. Result: Junior is homeless. Sentimental Sister now complains at all future holiday gatherings about the loss of the family land.
  2. Subdivide the land into 4 equal tracts and give 1 tract to each sibling.
    1. Result: Junior gets a windfall for his thievery of the insurance proceeds. Land is less valuable subdivided than if sold/kept as a whole tract.
  3. 7 years of litigation.
    1. Result: Everyone angrier and poorer than when Papa died. Judge makes a decision that makes no sense to anyone.

The siblings would do well to hire estate litigation lawyers to help them sort through the complex legal remedies and identify resolutions that serve their interests. The lawyers’ jobs will involve a lot of helping the siblings set aside their emotions to see the outcome that is reasonable and hopefully fair.