While watching the ball drop in New York City this New Year’s Eve, the television ran what seemed like 100 cuts in a row of Barbara Walters saying, “I’m Barbara Walters, and this is 20/20.” This was a play to tie our new year with the popular ABC news program that she hosted.

This got me to thinking of another play of this number sequence as we journey into the new year. The expression that “hindsight is 20/20” refers to choices that have seemed difficult in the past but become crystal clear after we later know what will happen as a result of those choices.

The 20/20 description originated in ophthalmology from the Snellen eye chart as a way to quantify clear vision. A person with normal vision has 20/20 sight.

The first number in the expression 20/20 stands for how many feet away from the chart the person is standing in order to see it. The second number is how many feet away from the chart the average person must be standing from the chart in order to see it.

“Hindsight is 20/20” is a proverb that means it is easy to “see” something after it has already happened. In simpler terms, something I hear often from my 17-year-old daughter is “Duh, Dad.”

Living to a New Year

A few years ago, a sociology professor named David Phillips examined 57 million death certificates issued between 1979 and 2004 and made an interesting finding: Not only do more people die in the winter months, but New Year’s Day is actually the deadliest day of all.

Phillips plotted the millions of deaths from natural causes according to the day of the year on which they occurred. His findings showed a wave of death that starts to rise with summer months and then increased through December and peaked exactly on Jan. 1 of the next year.

My hypothesis is that the human spirit is strong enough to want to live through another Christmas season and a new year. In my world, this translates into more wills being read for estate distribution in the month of January than any other month of the year.

Reading of your will

I wrote in a recent column about leaving a legacy instead of an inheritance, “A simple test of your legacy would be if you could attend the ‘reading’ of your own will.”

We should maybe consider this simple test while living. Why not have a “reading of your will” before you die? Even better, why not have a “reading of the will” every five years as a review for your family?

This seems somewhat redundant at first. But if you dig deeper into the concept of communication it makes sense to consider this dry run with your heirs long before your passing and the final “reading of the will” to curb the negative possibilities when it counts the most.

Imagine the emotion-packed circumstance of a farm family sitting down for the first time in their parent’s attorney’s office to talk about the distribution of an estate just a few days after burying a loved one. Imagine that there are millions of dollars of illiquid equity at stake and nobody knows what is in the will that is about to be read. Imagine if your future hinges on the legal document that is about to be revealed.

What do you think will be going through the minds of your heirs? Realistically, the prevalent thought may be, “What am I going to get?” Then, “How much is it worth?” Followed by, “When do I get it?”

We often use the lottery concept as a parallel to how heirs may think at the time of an estate distribution. Like being handed a scratch-off lottery ticket, reality occurs when the ticket owner scratches off the window to see what it is they have won (or not won).

It is easy to understand how some heirs might be disappointed in their announced share. The non-farming children may be unhappy that their farming sibling “gets more” than they do. The farming sibling may be dissatisfied that they “got the same” as the others who didn’t exert the same effort in creating the estate that is now being divided.

With escalating farm appraisals, it can be difficult for heirs to resist the temptation of focusing on a monetary value of an inheritance. This can lead to possible arguments over material matters after the quantification of equity at an emotionally charged time.

It may have taken you a lifetime to build this equity, but it may only take a few months to tear it down.

Three calls

This week, we received three calls regarding deaths in the month of January. Each of these discussions questioned the next step in the process, which is now the final “reading of the will.”

Two of these families have already had open communication with all the children (and their spouses) about their estate and farm transition plans. The heirs of the third family are about to find out their parent’s estate plan for the first time.

Which family do you think will have the most anxiety entering that fateful room, and which family has the greatest probability of issue when they scratch off their ticket to see what they have won?

If 20/20 Hindsight would tell you that it is a bad idea to wait to communicate your estate and farm transition plan to your heirs for the first time in your attorney’s office with the reading of your will, then maybe you should make a resolution in this new year of 2020 to create a process to communicate your plans.

No matter how a dispute may originate, sometimes the struggle between legacy and inheritance is inevitable. If, however, something can be done to prevent this from happening, isn’t it worth the time and effort to explore? Communication seems to be the obvious answer.

My hope is that you will have 20/20 foresight to diminish future issues with the reading of your will by following an estate and farm transition process that includes a meeting with your family to discuss your plans before your heirs hear it from your attorney after your demise in an emotion packed setting that may facilitate greed and resentment.

For 27 years, Steve Bohr has been a partner in the farm continuation firm of Farm Financial Strategies, Inc. For additional information on farm continuation issues or if you have a question please contact Steve via email at Bohr@FarmEstate.com or by phone at 1-800-375-4180.

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