Steve sat down at the dinner table and slowly shook his head back and forth. His wife, Jill, looked at him questioningly and said, “What’s the problem?”

Steve had spent part of the morning at the local coffee shop solving the world’s problems and catching up on the latest news of the community. At 75 years old, this morning meeting takes place about three times a week. Today’s topic centered around one of his neighbors, but Steve came home worried about his own family.

The neighbor died a few years ago, and his wife passed away this spring. The couple’s four children were now in a bitter fight over the farm. Some children accused their siblings of manipulating their mother before her death. They questioned whether their mother was of a sound mind when last minute changes were made.

Sadly, any good feelings among the four siblings were gone. Decades of family unity were overpowered by divisive behavior and greed. The growing rift in his neighbor’s family was painful to watch.

Steve had always believed if you died with $10, then your children would get together for Thanksgiving dinner. On the flip-side, if you died with $10 million, then the last meal your kids would have together would be at your funeral.

Worried that his own family would go through the same horrible transformation, Steve was determined not to let their modest wealth be a source of contention with the children.

Steve and Jill had accumulated 750 acres of farmland over the last 40 years. Jill worked off the farm for most of her career and 15 years ago inherited almost $1 million of investments from her parents. Since then, that amount had increased to almost $2 million.

Steve and Jill have three children. Their oldest child, a son, is a mechanical engineer. He and his wife have three children of their own and live 20 minutes from Steve and Jill. Their second child, a daughter, also lives close by. She and her husband are both school teachers. They have four children.

Both older children are about 15 years away from retirement. Although they would not be considered rich by most standards, they have paid off their homes and are helping their children pay for college.

Steve and Jill’s youngest son is 45 years old and followed Steve into farming. He is married and has four children. Two of his children are also interested in farming. This son purchased 240 acres of land 10 years ago. He also rents an additional 1,500 acres of land, including 750 acres from Steve. As with many father-son operations, Steve helped his son begin farming and his son enabled Steve to farm well into retirement. It was clear their farming partnership had provided mutual benefits.

After several long discussions, Steve and Jill knew what they wanted to do and were prepared to make changes to their wills. Giving their youngest son the opportunity to continue farming their land was a top priority.

At the first death they wanted all of their assets to go to the surviving spouse. At the second death, the two non-farming children would each receive $1 million from Jill’s investments. The farming son would receive 150 acres of land worth $1.5 million. He would also inherit the home place, which included the house, two hog buildings, machine shed and grain storage setup.

Steve and Jill would then distribute the remaining 600 acres of land into separate 200-acre parcels to each of their children. Their wills would clearly state which parcel would go to each child, and they were happy with this arrangement. They wanted to require their non-farming children to rent their inherited land to the youngest child for the next 15 years. Rent would be set at the Iowa State University county average amount.

If one of the older children wanted to sell their land, the farming son would have the first option to buy the land at the appraised price with no discount. The older children would be permitted to sell half of their land during the first 10 years. The second half of the land could be sold after 10 years had transpired. The only caveat to this provision was that if the farming son was willing to buy the land sooner, the sale could occur.

Steve and Jill wanted to go a step further and include a provision in the will stating if any of their children contested the will, they would forfeit their portion of the inheritance. They did not consider this too extreme because they wanted to reinforce the possibility that some of their grandchildren might continue to farm the land.

The last provision they wanted to include in their wills was a provision for family meals. They wanted to require their children to get together for both Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day holidays. They would have to spend from 9 o’clock in the morning till 6 o’clock in the evening together. They would have to talk nicely to one another and enjoy one another’s company.

When they presented this idea to their lawyer, she smiled at their request but said they would need to leave this provision out.

Sadly, nine months after the will was signed, Steve died of a heart attack. Jill lived for four more years and spent the last year in a nursing home. After her death, land and other farm assets were distributed as clearly laid out in the will.

Not surprisingly, the three siblings got together for some holidays and still enjoyed being around one another.

Bob Dunaway and Associates offer estate and retirement planning. Gary Johnson can be reached at 563-927-4554 or by emailing him at