As a young lawyer, many years ago, I was told that “all you require is a family and something indivisible worth money and you have a row on your hands” -unfortunately this has proved only too true on many occasions since then.
A rich vein of financial and land disputes can be found in the rural world, often stemming from almost feudal succession arrangements, capital but little cash, lack of willingness to invest in putting things on a proper footing and a selection of family members and their other halves. This often proves to be a toxic and explosive mix.
Country communities have had their ups and downs over the years and many families, farmers and rural businesses have, in good times and over several generations, acquired substantial wealth. Since the Industrial Revolution, industrialists, and more recently those in service industries, have bought into very substantial parts of the countryside. The resulting family, business and land ownership issues produce particular succession, trust, asset retention, investment, inheritance and businesses structure issues, with characteristics all of their own.
Farming families often bring together a number of these issues, and if things start going wrong the results can be awful.
As a mediator, I have seen a number of rural asset-related disputes where the first seeds were planted a couple generations ago when the grandparents originally farmed in partnership. They often had a large family and brought some or all of the boys into the partnership to the exclusion of the girls. If the grandparents made wills, they probably left the land so that the farm business operated on land owned by a variety of family members, sometimes without the certainty of proper tenancy arrangements. By the time the grandparents die, the children have their own grown-up married families and there are often well-developed festering feelings of unfairness and resentment at the cousin level. All that is then needed is a match to light the blue touch paper – often provided by new family members introduced by marriage, who bring a new perspective to the situation.
Inheritance, development potential, matrimonial problems, the need to raise cash to invest, diversification opportunities, tenancy issues and many other events can also fire things off; but, once lit, the resulting disputes can be very bitter, unpleasant and expensive.
I have plenty of experience of acting as a mediator of rural-based disputes and they almost all had the common denominator of being avoidable if investment in making proper arrangements had been made by earlier generations. Business structures could have been properly defined, tenancies could have been formalised, appropriate compatible wills could have been made and fairness between family members could have been better considered.
Perhaps now is the time to re-consider whether everything is in place to ensure as far as possible that there will be harmony in future generations.
If there are already problems, consider using mediation to resolve them; it can be set up quickly, it is cost-effective and in many cases can be the start of rebuilding family, and business harmony. It will allow you to wake up one morning with the sorry situation behind you. But that is the subject of another article.