A farm widow’s business savvy

Another fatal farm accident report hits my ears, just after presenting to a large group in Westlock, Alberta. “Another young farm widow joins a club she doesn’t ever want to belong to, I wonder how she will manage the farm, her family, herself.” I wonder.

Now that I belong to the “Freedom 55” club, I am not retiring from my coaching practice or my supportive role to my farming husband. I do think about how I would manage 5,000 acres and a seed business if Wes was to die soon.

How should I prepare to be a young widow? (Fifty-five is young, 86 is the new life expectancy for women in Canada.) Do you have the courage to get ready to be a widow?

1. Talk about what you would do. Share “what if” scenarios with your spouse so that you have a clear indication of their intent and wishes for you to carry on. Consider whom you would hire as part of your team of advisers. Find good recommendations via word-of-mouth referrals and the business directory of www.cafanet.com. (Canadian Association of Farm Advisors). Use this year to plan a calendar of events of farm activities and deadlines that keep you up to date with farm management. Visit the accountant with your spouse for tax planning.

2. Develop a relationship with a financial planner whom you as a couple both trust and respect. This is looking at your lifestyle income needs, your personal investment risk tolerance, and your goals for insuring your debt, estate tax liabilities, and long-term care or critical illness possibilities. I don’t have critical illness insurance as the premiums for me were going to be high, so my plan is to sell land if I need the Mayo Clinic. I expect that you know how to write cheques, and balance the accounts. Unfortunately, I have met women my age who never touch the family’s finances. UGH!

Get a clear picture of what you actually spend on living, because as a widow you’ll be negotiating cash flow with your successors who have living needs also.

3. Update and review your insurance. I’m hearing stories about men who are outliving their insurance policies, and not renewing them due to high premiums. They don’t have the $600K cash from the proceeds they intended to share with non-business heirs. They don’t want the farm to pay the premiums. In another case, the dad cancelled the insurance, without letting the family know, and you can bet the grieving family was more than shocked when that uninsured fellow dropped dead due to a heart attack a few years later.

4. Ask your accountant all the dumb questions you need to. There are no dumb questions, just lots of assumptions that are waiting for clarification. My chartered accountant is concerned when she interviews farm widows who have never engaged even at a basic level of caring about the farm finances. It’s time to learn more about the balance sheets, debt service and asset values you are going to have to make decisions about. I am saddened to hear from wealthy widows who had no clue how rich they really were, and now are not able to embrace a financial strategy to enjoy their status as their health is failing. Do you have a poverty mentality based on false assumptions about your net worth? Do you have titles with your name on them?

5. Check to see that you have an enduring power of attorney with an adult child you trust, and an alternate. If you are a widow and become incapacitated from making decisions, then whom do you trust to take care of you? Do this before you are assessed with mental health issues and are still thinking clearly.

6. Make a life binder manual to have all your documents in order and the contact information for advisers, plumbers, electricians etc. You can download forms to fill in at www.rightrisk.org. I’ve written about this before, and my binder is started, but needs a blizzard day to get done. As the executor of an estate, it helps to know where all the important papers are located. Don’t forget to locate and write down the current computer passwords.

7. Encourage your husband to write down all the things in his head that the farm needs to know for ongoing farm management. Men hate to do this. How can you make it easier? I have purchased Dick Wittman’s consulting binder that is full of templates and operating procedures. This might be a great task to tackle with your young successors, who would like to see things on paper while Dad is still alive and well to put his wisdom into text. The young widow that I mentioned has a lot of cows to feed, and the ration ratios died with the farmer. What information needs to be shared with your farm team to pass along the managerial tasks smoothly?

8. Book a spa day when you can celebrate getting all your affairs in order. Or buy your favourite book. Have something to look forward to, maybe a date with your hubby to tell him how thankful you are for his love and provision. Men (and women) have a tough go on farms, and carry a lot of stress around being successful providers. They need some appreciation now, not just at their eulogy.

9. Start planning your funeral, and ask the funeral director for a template of the invoice your family is going to receive. You’ll be shocked at all the “add-ons” of services, and possibly you would like to make some pre-arrangements so that your decisions are not made in the emotionally charged days of fresh grief. Ask your husband to tell stories about his prized possessions, and then list the names and articles that he wishes to gift. Better yet, give the gifts with a warm hand.

10. Ask the next generation to help you build a digital DVD collection of farm photos and family shots that diarize the legacy your farm family has enjoyed over the years. The story is not finished yet, but start working on the chapters of your life story now. When my dad died, I relied heavily on a creative memories photo album that I had created for his 75th birthday. Get working on those photo archives and relive the great memories of cherishing your family. †

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