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Strong feelings tied up to land

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 03/05/2013 9:17 AM

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AMES, Iowa — Mike Rosmann, a Harlan psychologist and farmer, said some of the worst disputes have been over land.

"From history, we see that wars have been fought over land," Rosmann said during a workshop on farm transitions at the recent Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference in Ames.

Rosmann said the traits that make farm owners successful — risk taking, the drive to work incredibly hard in the face of adversity and the ability to work alone — often set them up to have a harder time making a transition. Farm people are more likely than any other occupational group to put their own lives at risk in order to hang onto their land.

"The suicide rate of men who live on the farm or ranch is the highest of any occupational group," Rosmann said. "We're not paying enough attention to that kind of thing."

In his practice, Rosmann sees the problems that develop as a result of farm transitions and estate plans.

In one case, the transition plan included a life estate that allowed the surviving parent to have the income from about 240 acres after the first partner in the marriage died. There were nine children in the family and only one farmed. The father died 10 years ago. The mother recently sold her half of the estate to the son who farms. They set the price by looking at the going rate for land in neighboring areas, which, when they started talking 2 1/2 years ago, averaged about $6,000 per acre. She sold half of the 240 to the son for $5,500 per acre. By the time they completed the deal in September 2012, prices for land had increased to $10,000.

"The other siblings quickly tramped off to see the attorney saying that the son had influenced her to sell to him at a bargain price, and now they aren't going to get that much," Rosmann said. "Actually, they shouldn't have any access to the money he pays his mother for the land. She can do whatever she wants with it. She had been giving it out as gifts in equal amounts to all her children, including the son who bought the land. She was trying to be fair, but it's an example of the saying that sometimes fair isn't equal and equal isn't fair. Now, the son and his wife, who are in their 40s, and the aging mother are having to defend themselves."

Rosmann was called on to evaluate the mother. He found her of sound mind. She and her son documented how they arrived at the land price.

"She wanted her son to have the opportunity to hold onto that land," Rosmann said. "That was built into their arrangement."

In another situation, two brothers inherited 160 acres near a large city. It was suitable for a housing development or a shopping mall. The father died eight years ago. The older son was executor for the father. The second son hadn't had that opportunity, so the mother and the older son named him executor for the mother's part.

The mother was in declining health due to increasing dementia. The land was sold for a shopping center. The mother died, and when her will was read, all the land and its proceeds were to go to the second son. The earlier will had divided everything equally between the sons. The older son filed a suit that went to the Iowa Supreme Court. The high court sustained the will even though there was probably substantial influence by the younger son to change the will because the mother was suffering from dementia, Rosmann said.

"For the rest of their lives, these two brothers mostly likely won't be talking," Rosmann said. "It will take a great deal of courage for them to undertake what they need to achieve reconciliation."