Not Easy, But Worth It: A Rancher’s Succession Planning Advice

“In 1995, when I was 15 and my sister was 14, the large family ranch was splitting up. We had a family meeting and our parents asked if we wanted to sell the ranch or keep it,” says Toni Meacham, “We didn’t want to leave, we wanted to stay.” Toni’s strong connection and dedication to the only place she’s truly called home, to her family, to ranching, and to her community is the foundation of the hard work it takes to keep their plan alive.

Toni also decided early on, in fifth grade, that she wanted to be a lawyer. “As soon as I graduated from law school, the day after, I moved back,” she said. Today, Toni operates her law practice from the family ranch in Connell, Wash., where she can keep an eye on the cattle and provide needed services to farmers and ranchers. From Toni’s experience there’s not nearly enough lawyers that understand agriculture.

She runs the cow-calf operation with her close-knit family including her husband and two kids, sister and brother-in-law, with their two kids, and her parents are still active in their 70s. They make it work because,

“We talk, we make decisions together. We still fight and have arguments. But we are cognizant about listening to each other,” says Toni. “You cannot treat it like a hobby. You have to make decisions from a business perspective.” And even then, there’s never enough money to go around. Everyone has off-farm jobs in the family.

Toni’s grandparents, Bill and Norma Bennett, who started it all, are still helping out. Norma’s cooking brings in all the grand and great-grand kids. And Bill, who just turned 91, might just have a reputation of being the best cowboy in a Tahoe in the US.

On succession planning, Bill says there’s no advice that fits everybody: “Circumstances dictate what you do, and you don’t ever do anything 100 percent right.” He says, “Trusts can be very valuable, but be careful who you have to be the trustee.”

Toni’s been working closely with the Washington Cattlemen’s Association to provide guidance on succession planning.

Here are her top five pieces of advice:

  1. "Plan, even if you feel like it is too late. Do something. The worst thing you can do is nothing

  2. There is a difference between an estate plan and a succession plan. An estate plan takes care of your estate when you pass away, a succession plan transitions the business/entity to the next generation. It can occur while you are still alive to see it (yes, seriously, it can happen while you are alive for those of you that cannot hand over the reins).

  3. Include long-term care plans. Decide what you want to happen to you in the twilight of your life. Life happens if you have planned for it or not, and it will be smoother if you make decisions that impact you before the choice is taken out of your hands.

  4. Decisions that impact generations should be decided by those generations, not by one person that has failed to consider what everyone else may want. Family dynamics are not ‘cookie cutter’ but are rather specific and need to be considered. Have discussions, talk, make plans, and put things in writing. There are experts out there to help you. It won't be easy, it won't be fun, but in the end it should be worth it.

  5. Look at all plans with a holistic approach, knowing that plans change and evolve. I tell people that your documents are living, you must take care of them, and they aren't that hard to change once you have the format figured out. Estate/succession planning is like running a ranch, decisions need to be made on a daily basis, with big decisions documented.

Most importantly, Grandpa Bill says, “you’ve got to have a plan. Things can happen quick.”