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farm transition

By: Robert Moore, Tuesday, March 05th, 2024

Legal Groundwork

In the last post, we looked at strategies to deal with second marriages using trusts.  In this post, we look at the risks of divorce on the farm transition plan and strategies to minimize the risk.

Marital Versus Separate Assets

To address the issue of divorce, it is first helpful to know what assets are subject to a divorce. According to Ohio law, marital assets are to be divided “equitably” in the event of a divorce.   Equitable does not necessarily mean equal although an equal division of marital assets between the spouses is often the result. Divorces can be especially threatening to farmland because of the “land rich, cash poor” dilemma for farmers. In a farm divorce, it is usually not equitable for one spouse to receive all the farm assets if there are not sufficient non-farm assets for the other spouse. Thus, both spouses may receive farmland in the divorce settlement. Once the farmland is divided, either spouse can sell or transfer the land out of the family.

It is important to note that Ohio law only requires “marital” assets to be divided.  Non-marital assets, referred to as “separate” assets, are retained by the spouse who brought the assets to the marriage.  Understanding the difference between a separate asset and a marital asset is critical when attempting to mitigate the risks of divorce.

Separate assets include the following:

  • Property acquired by a spouse prior to the date of the marriage.
  • Passive income and appreciation from separate property received by a spouse during the marriage.
  • An inheritance received by a spouse during the marriage.
  • A gift received by a spouse during the marriage.

The above list would seem to make it an easy exercise to determine which assets are marital and which are separate in a divorce situation. However, like many legal issues, the application of the concept is more complicated than it may appear. This is because Ohio law also provides that income or appreciation on separate property can become a marital asset.

Ohio law includes as marital property:

“… all income and appreciation on separate property, due to the labor, monetary, or in-kind contribution of either or both of the spouses that occurred during the marriage. ”

So, it is possible for an asset to be partially separate (the initial property) and partially marital (the income and appreciation on the property).

Consider the following example:

Andy and Beth are farmers in the process of divorcing. Shortly after they were married, Beth inherited a 100-acre farm from her grandmother. When she inherited the farm, it was valued at $600,000. A few years after inheriting the farm, Andy and Beth’s farming operation paid for and installed $80,000 of drainage tile on the farm. The current value of the farm is $1 million.

In this example, the farm was Beth’s separate asset upon inheritance. However, the tile that improved the quality and value of the farm was a result of Andy and Beth’s joint farming operation. Andy likely has a valid claim that at least part of the $400,000 increase in value is a marital asset due to the tile installation.

Perhaps Andy further argues that most of the increase in value was due to fertilizer, tillage and other soil improvements made while Andy and Beth farmed the land. It is in Andy’s interest to make the $400,000 increase in value a marital asset. Conversely, Beth could argue that the increase was not a result of the marital farming operation but was merely a passive value increase due to market pressure. It is in Beth’s interest to argue the $400,000 increase as her separate asset.

As this example illustrates, an asset that is initially a separate asset can become, at least in part, a marital asset. Both Andy and Beth have valid arguments. It is not hard to imagine how much time and legal fees could be spent resolving or litigating the issue in a contentious divorce.

Co-mingling assets can also cause a separate asset to become a marital asset. If the spouse owning the asset voluntarily allows the other spouse to become an owner of the asset, it is likely to become a marital asset. Using the example above, after Beth receives the farm, she adds Andy’s name to the deed as co-tenant. Because she voluntarily added Andy to the deed and gave him half ownership, Beth has likely changed the property from a separate to a marital asset.

Another example might be as follows:

Beth receives a $100,000 inheritance from her grandmother. Beth deposits the money in a bank account owned by both her and Andy.

By co-mingling the inherited money with other money owned jointly with Andy, Beth has probably made the $100,000 inheritance a marital asset. If Beth would have deposited the money in an account owned only by her, the inheritance would have remained a separate asset. While co-mingling does not automatically make an asset become marital property, the spouse owning the asset should avoid co-mingling if wanting to keep the asset separate.

Assets acquired during a marriage will almost always be considered marital property. This is true even if one spouse provided little or no contribution towards the acquisition of the asset. Ohio law considers marriage to be a partnership regardless of the contribution of the spouses. For example, farmland purchased during the marriage will be a marital asset even if only one spouse operates the farm and the other spouse is not involved with the farmland or farming operation.

Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements

A prenuptial agreement can help alleviate the issues with marital assets. This type of agreement entered into prior to marriage designates what assets each person is bringing to the marriage, what assets will be separate, and what assets will be marital. Especially for people who have accumulated some wealth prior to marriage, a prenuptial agreement is a good option to avoid future disputes regarding the nature of assets in a marriage and potential risks to farmland.

To be valid and enforceable, a prenuptial agreement should:

  • Be in writing and signed by the parties;
  • Be prepared, reviewed and executed long before the marriage;
  • Provide each spouse’s assets, including values;
  • Be reviewed by separate attorneys representing each spouse.

Prenuptial agreements can become outdated, especially when marriages last many years.  A married couple who enters into a prenuptial agreement when they are 25 may have very different assets and goals when they are 65.  Until recently, married couples in Ohio were stuck with their prenuptial agreement regardless of how unfair or obsolete the agreement had become.  Recently, legislation was adopted to allow for postnuptial agreements.

A postnuptial agreement is similar to a prenuptial agreement in that it identifies which assets are to remain outside of the marriage and what assets are considered joint, marital assets.  A postnuptial agreement is signed sometime after marriage begins.  There are no term requirements for a postnuptial agreement – it can be entered into shortly after marriage or many years after marriage.

For a prenuptial agreement to be terminated or amended or for a postnuptial agreement to valid, the law requires the following:

  • The agreement be in writing and signed by both spouses,
  • The agreement is entered into freely without fraud, duress, coercion or overreaching,
  • There was full disclosure, or full knowledge, and understanding of the nature, value and extent of the property of both spouses,
  • The terms do not promote or encourage divorce or profiteering from divorce.

For people who are considering getting remarried or for those that are already remarried, a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement should be considered.  These agreements can establish how assets are to be divided in the event of a divorce and perhaps relieve some worries regarding farm transition planning.  Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements should be drafted in consultation with an attorney.

For more information on farm transition strategies to address second marriage issues, see the new bulletin FARM TRANSITION PLANNING STRATEGIES FOR SECOND MARRIAGES available at

Tractor pulling wagon of grain across beanfield at sunset.

Written by David L. Marrison, Professor & Field Specialist in Farm Management, OSU Extension

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” This famous line was quoted by Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, in the iconic movie titled “The Shawshank Redemption” released in 1994.

As we each traverse through our lives, we all are presented with moments that make us pause and reflect on how precious the time is we have been given here on earth. Every time I watch The Shawshank Redemption, I pause and think of the deeper message in this line:  that life can be spent going through the motions and waiting around for something to happen or you can make something happen.

As we look at developing a plan for transitioning the farm to the next generation, are we waiting around for something to happen? Or will we work to make something happen? As farmers, we have to contend with and solve the day-to-day problems which arise on the farm. And there is never a shortage of problems that arise. Because of this, the time for deeper planning functions such as farm transition planning is often pushed down the to-do list.  So, what will be the trigger to make something happen with regards to your succession plan?

What will be your trigger?

One of the hypothetical questions we pose in farm succession workshops is, “What knowledge would you need to pass on if you knew you had only two months to live?” This exact scenario happened to our family in 2010 when my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just as we entered into Spring planting season on our dairy farm in northeast Ohio. 

My father valiantly battled this disease but passed away seven weeks later. Our family learned a lot and had to scramble to manage the farm in the midst of his illness. I am grateful for the short time we had with my dad to make preparations. But it was not long enough to learn everything we needed to know to run the farm without him.

I challenge you to think how your farm and family would react to the loss of the principal operator.  What knowledge and skills need to be transferred to the next generation so they can be successful without you? What can you do today to make something happen?

Who Will Manage the Farm in the Future?

As you develop your succession or transition plan, there are a myriad of decisions to be made. These decisions include identifying the next leader/manager of the farm, how to be fair to off-farm heirs without jeopardizing the future of the on-farm heirs, how to distribute assets through the estate plan, how and when the senior generation will retire, and how the business will deal with unexpected issues such as divorce, disability or paying for nursing home expenses. I would contend that the most crucial planning functions are to identify the next manager of the farm and then strategically plan how to develop them to lead the farm in the future.

The first step is to identify who the next leader or leaders of the farm will be. The next generation could be an immediate family member (son, daughter, grandchild) or extended family member (brother, sister, niece, nephew). With that said, the next leader does not have to be from your family as some farms have transitioned successfully to a non-blood friend or neighbor. The key is to choose a successor who will be the best caretaker of the farm and the land they will be entrusted with.

As you review potential managers and heirs to your farm, it is important to talk with them about their vision for the future and how it aligns with the current farming operation. What are their goals and aspirations for the farm? What concerns do they have about the future of the farm? 

Complete a skills assessment with each potential heir/manager to examine their current strengths and which areas they will need to receive training in order for them to be a better leader for the farm in the future. Talk with them to learn more about what they would be most concerned or scared about if they had to take over the farm today. Are there additional responsibilities they would like to assume and what is their expectation for an appropriate time for management control to be transferred?

The new manager should have experience with how other farms are operated. Having the future manager work on another farm prior to returning to the home farm is a valuable experience. Mentor relationships should also be developed for the new manager to have a trusted team to help them grow.

Putting the Transition into Motion

The transition can be accomplished gradually by turning over more responsibility and authority to the successor.  In fact, this process may (and should) take 5-10 years. It is important to develop a timeline for transferring ownership, management responsibilities, and knowledge from one generation to the next.

As the senior generation transitions their role and responsibilities to the next generation, thought should be given to the overall labor hours which will be available. In some cases, the responsibilities of two members of the senior generation will be transitioned to a single successor. Think of husband/wife combination transitioning to one of their children. This could cause a labor shortage. Could some tasks be outsourced to independent contractors (like accountants)? Can some production practices be accomplished through custom hire arrangements (silage harvest or cattle breeding)?

The biggest task in the transition plan is making sure the next generation has a firm foundation of knowledge to manage the operation in the future. This will look different for each farm and for the type of manager that is needed.

Owner-Operator. If the next manager is going to be an owner-operator, then training will need to include how to manage all aspects of the farm. These include production skills to raise livestock and/or crop enterprises and marketing skills to effectively market each commodity produced. The owner-operator will also need financial skills to manage the operation’s finances and taxes and human resource skills to manage employees. Additionally, they will need to know how to maintain facilities, tools, and equipment as well as how to manage risk through crop, livestock, and farm insurance.

Owner-Landlord. To the contrary, if the next manager will be more of an owner-landlord, they will need to be trained less on the day-to-day production activities and more on how to manage the farm asset. Some skills which are necessary for landlords include tenant and farm rental management, farm finance and tax management, farm insurance decision making, and facilities and other farm assets maintenance.

Strategies recommended for farm businesses to utilize in the transition process are:

  • Every person who is part of the business (family member and employees) should have a written job description which includes job duties, responsibilities, and expectations.
  • Create an organization chart of all employees and how each employee relates to one another.
  • Develop a timeline for the successor to work through each job description on the farm. It is good to start the new family member as an employee and not the top manager.
  • Provide meaningful opportunities for decision-making as well as accepting responsibility for the future manager.
  • Develop a plan on how the future manager can increase their equity in the farm business through gifting, purchasing or inheritance.
  • Develop a timeline for retirement and managerial transfer from senior generation to the succeeding generation.
  • Utilize family business meetings to discuss the transfer and changing roles within the business.

Some experts advise that the current manager take a number of planned absences before retiring to provide an opportunity for the successor to see what it is like to manage the business alone. This will also allow the current manager to see that the farm does not fall apart without them. So how do you know if the next generation is ready?  There are two other approaches which you can use to help prepare the next generation to lead without you:  

Opossum Approach. Just as an opossum plays dead, so too should the principal operator.   Take an unannounced week away from the farm during one of the busiest times of the year for your farm and allow the junior generation to take over with no communication from the senior generation.  I know this sounds crazy but how else will you know what knowledge and skills need to be transferred?  It is a lot easier to come back after a short vacation and be able to answer the questions your son or daughter has.  You won’t have this opportunity when you pass away.

365-Day Challenge.  Outside of using the opossum approach, it should be the goal of the senior generation to transfer at least one knowledge point or skill to the next generation each day. So, by the end of the year, your heirs will have 365 new tools in their management toolbox. If you do this over the next five to ten years, you can teach your heirs an incredible amount.

Take Advantage of OSU Extension Workshops

Attend one of our Planning for the Future of Your Farm” workshops this Winter to learn about the communication and legal strategies that provide solutions for dealing with farm transition needs and decision making.  A webinar version and several in-person options for the workshop are being offered.

Webinar version.  You and your family members can attend the workshop individually and online from the comfort of your homes. The four-part webinar series will be February 5, 12, 19, and 26, 2024, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. via Zoom. Pre-registration is required so that a packet of program materials can be mailed in advance to participating families. Electronic copies of the course materials will also be available to all participants. The registration fee is $75 per farm family.  Register by February 2, 2024 to receive course materials in time. Register on this page.

In-person workshops.  Our local Extension Educators are hosting in-person workshops at five regional locations across Ohio. Registration costs vary by location due to local sponsorships. 

More information about our Planning for the Future of Your Farm workshops is available at:

Final Thoughts

So, are you ready “to make something happen” to transition your farm to the next generation?  Farm managers are encouraged to think about how the next generation can be prepared to lead the farm in the future.  And as Andy Dufresne stated in The Shawshank Redemption, “remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”  Good luck as you plan for the future of your farm!

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