Thursday, March 19, 2015

When Equal Just Isn’t Fair

Mentioned often in these posts is that I was born and spent my early years on an ancestral ranch in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, the only son of an only son, a fifth generation Idaho rancher and sixth generation westerner.

But while delving into why that all came to an end, I’ve formed strong opinions about familial succession and distribution of estates.  Fairness often doesn’t mean equal.

More than 100 years ago next month, my great grandparents and grandparents migrated from both sides of the Idaho-Utah line and upper Cache Valley to that nook, about a half a century before I was born, so that their children would have access to land.

Accessible land in Cache Valley and Bear River Valley, part of a 7,500 acre watershed linking three states had already become difficult to find or too expensive.

So the family hitched up four wagons with teams of four horses each, along with a white-top buggy pulled by two horses, several saddle horses, and a hundred head of cattle and headed off on the 15-day, 200-mile trip north.

Between Spring and Snow Creeks, a mile west of the Henry’s Fork River, my great grandparents bought a ranch and homesteaded another while my grandparents and three of my grandfather’s siblings homesteaded others.

Within a decade, my grandparents began buying these parcels up as my grandfather’s siblings decided to turn to other pursuits or ranch somewhere else.

My great-grandfather had remarried two years after my great-grandmother died during the 1918 Great Influenza Epidemic, and inherited a step-family in the process.

As he neared the end of his life in 1936, he appointed my grandfather executor of his estate. But nine years earlier, my great grandfather and his second wife had begun selling parts of his land to my grandparents beginning with what we called the “Hole In The Ground” place.01471_s_aaeuyfyqe0365

A third was paid up front in cash with my grandparents paying off the remainder including interest of 7% by supplying half of the annual harvest each year after expenses and taxes.

Having to resolve issues among siblings and step-relations as well as having to buy and reassemble much of the ancestral holdings nearly crushed my grandfather’s spirit for ranching.

It also deepened his reticence for conflict resolution when it involved family.

Due to my grandfather’s health, after that my dad ran the ranch beginning in his teens and well into the 1940s.  After finally being permitted to serve in WWII, he returned to my mom and the ranch in July 1946.

Dad had been able to mechanize the ranch before he left and over the objections of my grandfather to meet the steep production quotas levied as a crucial part of the war effort.

He and mom continued to modernize the ranch after dad returned based on my grandparents commitment for them to inherit the ranch when they were gone.  This included leveraging tens of thousands of dollars of investment in new equipment and buildings.

But in the late 1950s, one of my dad’s three sisters began pressuring my grandfather for “her” share of the ranch, although she had never been much for that way of life or invested any time or effort other than growing up there.

My grandfather backed out of his commitment to his only son and daughter-in-law, inexplicably not even facilitating its affordable sale to them as his father had done three decades earlier for him.

Before her death in January, I took the opportunity during a Thanksgiving visit to ask my mom something more to the story: how she and dad came to the difficult decision to pick up and start a new life elsewhere, leaving those ancestral lands, friends and a generational way of life.

His dad wouldn’t even compensate them for their investment in the ranch because he had not been in favor of modernization in the first place.

Within a year or so, he would sell the ranch leaving it for my grandmother to distribute the estate after he died in the 1964.

I idolized my grandfather, who from the day I was born would travel up from my their house in Saint Anthony to the ranch each day to pal around with me doing chores.

I had only glimpses of how stubborn he could be, second-guessing my dad’s decisions, even insisting on raking hay with a team of horses, while dad and I idled along across the meadow behind him with a tractor and bailer.

It was probably as much that my parents knew they would never be able to run the ranch as they wanted as it was the distribution of the estate that was the final straw.

Relatives were often critical of their decision to leave, including those who stood to gain as well as other branches.

In hindsight, my grandfather could have handled things in many different ways.

As I have seen done here in Durham, even without selling it to my parents he could have granted shares in the ranch to each of his children but a greater share to my parents indexed for the sweat, tears and risks they had in operating it while growing the value of the other shares.

This is an instance where insisting that all shares be equal isn’t really fair.

My parents may have been too young to see or propose alternatives, but in the end, I think they wanted a new start, one where they could call their own shots.

They may have already had inklings that even though I loved the ranch and the history, my inclinations were not toward ranching, nor were those of my two younger sisters.

After leasing a place and being ripped off by a broker, they showed even more resilience by refusing to file bankruptcy and taking on entirely new lines of work, not only paying off the debt but going on to successful careers.

In our last in-person visit, my mom reiterated how much my dad had dearly loved ranching and he was very good at it.  But our parents were clearly more intent on propelling their three children further into the middle class.

Though frequently nostalgic for the ranch, my parents didn’t pine nor did they hold grudges.  Throughout their lives and our time growing up, visits with grandparents and aunts and uncles continued as though nothing had happened.

Memories of ancestral lands and my ranching heritage are romanticized for me now.  Somehow things worked out for the best for everyone involved.

But parents who are facing distribution of estates and businesses need to think very carefully about how to accomplish this, especially if some children are predisposed to the family business and willing to do and invest what it takes to sustain and grow it.

As my dad would often repeat while also applying it to doctors and bankers, “Don’t trust lawyers.”

For me, I have it easy.  Just one kid, and a pretty great kid at that who doesn’t have an entitlement bone in her body.

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