When families begin to talk about succession planning, the question often arises as to when and/or if it is appropriate to include in-laws in the discussion. This can become a very challenging and emotional decision, especially if the relationship between the spouses or family is strained or dysfunctional.
One thing to keep in mind is: At the end of the day, the family farm or business is just that – a business. Despite the fact that the dynamics of a family-run operation can certainly be more complex than a non-family-run operation, it is important key stakeholders are included in discussions regarding continuity and succession. Open, honest communication is key to a successful transition of the farm or business and, most importantly, to preserve family relationships.
A few things to keep in mind:
1. Succession and continuity plans are often confused with estate plans. The key differentiator is: Succession and continuity plans are developed and executed for the transition of management and leadership of the farm/business during life as well as at death, while the estate plan is strictly for the distribution of assets at death. It is the dynamic aspect of succession planning which requires the input and expertise of all stakeholders to be successful.
2. In-laws will be a part of the discussion whether they are in the room or not. It is simply not possible to have discussions regarding succession planning without including them. The challenge with attempting to exclude them is: They will get information secondhand through their spouse, which can create feelings of mistrust, frustration and anger due to missing or inaccurate interpretation of information. It is a far better strategy to include them from the beginning in order to avoid the negative repercussions of exclusion.
3. Succession planning is a process – not a product. It is often difficult to have discussions about the succession of the family farm/business, even for families who work well together. Longstanding family dynamics can often prevent family members from speaking openly about their feelings and wishes for the future. Many families find using a professional facilitator experienced in succession planning will ensure each stakeholder is heard and can provide options that take into consideration the wishes of the family leaders as well as the desires of the next generation.
4. Set clear expectations and boundaries for stakeholders and their role in the discussion. Stakeholders and shareholders have different roles to play. However, stakeholders can be just as invested in the outcome of transition discussions and strategy as shareholders. Stakeholders often feel a different level of stress when succession conversations begin because their financial future and the ability of their children to participate in the operation are tied to the decisions being made, but they typically do not have a vote in the outcome. Therefore, they often are uncertain about the future if something were to happen to their spouse. These concerns become more prevalent when there are challenging dynamics between family and in-laws. Rather than excluding stakeholders from the discussion, address the concerns of stakeholders early in the process and set clear expectations regarding their involvement. Clear expectations can reduce tension and create the framework for healthy dialogue and decision-making.
Unfortunately, the confusion families feel regarding these issues often delay succession planning from happening. A family may find themselves avoiding the process until they are in a position where decisions must be made quickly due to accident, retirement or death. Short timelines limit the strategies available and put unnecessary pressure on the family, the operators and the operations. The most important thing to remember is: When everyone has a voice, the succession and continuity planning process will be richer, more comprehensive and can capitalize on the strengths and talents of the entire family.