Decisions made early on can head off sibling conflicts later

Most people know the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

The book of Genesis tells the tale of two brothers who set up two different farming enterprises. The brothers each made a gift to God but God favoured only Abel’s gift. Cain, whom God had not favoured, then killed his brother and was outcast.

John Steinbeck’s book, East of Eden, observes that the story is not about jealousy but about a desire to be loved equally. This makes a lot of sense to me as I help farm families try to navigate the complex world of transition planning.

While it is exceptionally rare to see an outcome as extreme as the one in Cain and Abel’s case, it is not that rare to see siblings in a state of conflict.

The idea that family members will simply get along and that everyone will tolerate each other’s differences is wishful thinking.

There are some decisions that the business founders need to take at an early stage to avoid, or at least alleviate, future conflict among siblings:

  • Don’t assume that the business can support all family members who wish to work in it. Make this clear during the family’s upbringing
  • Ensure you have a clearly defined way to measure equity earned, and employ it early. A major source of conflict is when a sibling returns to the farm business at a later date and assumes an equal share
  • Understand that the governance model will change if more than one child becomes involved. Deal with this early to manage expectations.
  • Roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined, and individual strengths and weaknesses must be recognized when allocating them.
  • It may not always be the eldest child who should manage the farm. Accept that it may not be possible or desirable for your children to work together in the future, and be open to the idea of a split business.

If more than one child is coming back to the farm, put in place a comprehensive agreement that outlines how decisions will be made and how compensation is calculated. Such an agreement allows a child to leave, or be asked to leave, with clear rules on how this should take place and what the contingency plan is in the event of death, disability, divorce, disagreement or downturn

The will is often a major source of conflict. Don’t make farming children wait until you die before they can assume some ownership. Be fair to all of your children but understand that fairness is a perception. It requires the decision process to be transparent

Separate family from business and set out these expectations early on.

Unfortunately, many farm families fall into a continuing state of unhappiness because they didn’t manage the expectations of their children

It can be extremely difficult to repair the damage when siblings reach a heightened state of conflict. Even with professional help, a family may never fully recover from the anger and upset. It is far better to avoid the conflict in the first place.

The family farm is a unique blend of business, home, work and play. It can be a joyfully rich experience for all who touch it, but it can also become a monster that breaks families apart.

Understand the complex nature of human emotions, and don’t assume it will all work out. Be proactive, communicate with your children and manage expectations. Remember Steinbeck’s observation and try to treat your children fairly so that they understand that they are loved equally.

Bob Tosh is a farm management consultant in MNP’s Farm Management Consulting group in Saskatoon. For more information, call 
877-500-0778 or email [email protected]