Family disputes about inheritance and wills are by their nature divisive, in particular in Ireland when it comes to farmland. With land values on the increase and only a finite amount available disputes over wills and succession are on the increase.
When land has sometimes been held in the same family for generations there is potential for arguments to become very ugly.
The most distressing and extreme recent example of fallout from a will involving farm succession was the case of the O’Sullivan family in Kanturk, Co Cork. A dispute over which of the two sons, Mark and Diarmuid, would inherit the 115 acre farm owned by their mother Anne ended in tragedy last year. Their father Tadg, together with Diarmuid, shot Mark dead as he slept. Father and son then took their own lives.
Most disagreements about farm succession happen out of public sight and there’s an entire cohort of experts who know all about these disagreements, because they work with some families to try to resolve them.
When the will is read, there can be huge disappointment. Wills involving farms are complex
In addition to solicitors, there are now many mediators employed around the country to work with farming families to address disagreements about land, wills, and inter-farm disputes.
Siún Kearney is a Cork-based farm dispute mediator. “Making a will, deciding on succession; the earlier this is spoken about the better,” she says.
“There is an emotion in farming. Tradition is a huge part of it; your status in the community, your respect in the community. The traditional view is that the eldest son gets the farm, and that brings its own challenges. Farmers hate to dispose of any part of their land.”
Wills, when made, are sometimes secretive. Kearney explains that in her experiences, the person who owns the farm is usually the decision-maker when it comes to making a will. “With older couples, that person is usually the man.” Couples do not necessarily consult with each other when making the will. It also sometimes happens that even when the context of the will is known, after the death of one party, the surviving person then changes the will in favour of a different child, unbeknownst to the family. That outcome inevitably causes conflict.
“When the will is read, there can be huge disappointment. Wills involving farms are complex. There is the succession element, the financial entitlements, the love of the land, sometimes finding out after a death one person is not the chosen one after all. Sibling rivalries very much come to the fore at that point.”
Other disputes around wills can arise out of confusion with expectations from casual verbal promises. A typical one can be a grandfather telling each of his grandchildren in turn, when they are small children helping out on the farm, that one day this place will be theirs. “He might mean it will stay in their family, but they might go away thinking it’s coming to them.”
The best way to avoid these rows, Kearney advises, is to make a will, and be open about what is in it, so there are no surprises later on.
Pat McCormack is the president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association and a dairy farmer himself. “Rows can start in the graveyard,” he says, talking about when succession is disputed among families.
“The definition of fairness is a complex one when land is involved. I’ve seen cases where the young fellow goes abroad to Australia for years, the daughters are at home. All of a sudden, one parent is dead and then the son comes back, looking for his share of the farm.”
I have seen neighbour disputes about a sliver of land that is practically worthless: who owns it, where the boundary should be, whether the neighbour has a right of way or not
He has seen farm disputes become more numerous in the last 15 to 20 years. “For some reason, Irish farm families are very slow to sit down and have a round table discussion about their will. Anything that has value – and land has increased greatly in value – has the potential to create tension.”
So are the disagreements about money, or about who gets the farm, which may have been in the family for generations? “For the lad at home for the last 20 or 30 years working on the farm, it is about the land, and for the siblings who come back to visit every few years, it’s about money and being treated fairly. People will always fight over money.”
He cites one case where a son inherited the farm, and the other siblings inherited far smaller assets, which they disputed. The outcome was that the son was forced to sell all his stock to make a payout to the others, but now he has an asset and no way of making an income, unless he leases the farm. Those siblings no longer speak.
Karen Walsh comes from a farming background and is a Cork-based solicitor who has experience dealing with farm transfers. "Back in the 1980s, land wasn't worth much. You'd have struggled to make a living from 50 or 100 acres. But now even the average size farm has become a very valuable asset," she says.
“Land is only going to get more valuable, and they are not making any more of it. There is a huge attachment to land. I have seen neighbour disputes about a sliver of land that is practically worthless: who owns it, where the boundary should be, whether the neighbour has a right of way or not.”
In Walsh’s experience of dealing with farm families, selling land as a way of generating income, is almost never an option. “Selling land is non-negotiable, even if there is a farmer going through a divorce,” she says. “It’s seen as a shameful thing. Farmers are very, very reluctant to sell their land.”
Neither do farm owners generally want to split their land between their children, but want to keep the land ownership with one person, which creates its own problems.
“The farm is generally given to one child, and sites and money to the others. It can be very hard, to be fair. Sources of disputes can be when one child says they only got a site, whereas their sibling got the farm.”
Other disputes she has dealt with over time have included cases of a son being promised the farm. “Then the son would have worked on it without owning it, and there is a fall-out, and father and son don’t talk any more and the farm is left to the daughter. We have done a lot of those claims. It’s not always father and son; sometimes its uncle and nephew. But it’s the same story; the nephew is promised the farm, he works on it, there is a falling out, and then the will is changed.”
Rows are both about money and feeling a sense of unfairness ... Parents try to do the right thing, but their perception of fairness might not go down well with all their children
Not all farms are run by the person who owns them. The person who inherits the farm may have no interest in farming it themselves, or already have a different career. “There is status in owning a block of land,” Walsh says, giving another explanation as to why farm land is so rarely sold.
“There are many families not farming the land who are working away in their chosen profession, and who rent out the land and make a tax-free income with a lease for 60 years.”
Walsh, too, stresses the importance of making a will, and making the contents known, in order to avoid conflict later on. “For some reason, some of the older generation are reluctant to talk about money or wills.” If there are family difficulties simmering away, they are often not addressed, but allowed to continue. “There is a reluctance in rural Ireland to talk about your feelings or personal matters.”
Ciarán Dolan is a barrister and a farm mediator based in Limerick, who works all around Ireland. “Any farm family that doesn’t make some succession plan could be building up a lot of problems. Farms can now be worth much more than they were a couple of decades ago. Mediation is voluntary, but ending up in the courts is the worst possible outcome.”
Going to court over a will also costs much more than seeking the services of a mediator. It can cost between €5,000 and €10,000 per day in the courts, while mediation is around €100-€150 per hour.
“Rows are both about money and feeling a sense of unfairness,” Dolan says. “Parents try to do the right thing, but their perception of fairness might not go down well with all their children. If you have a relatively small farm and the income is small, it’s unlikely to cause difficulty. But if you have a large farm, and one sibling is getting an inheritance of very valuable land, there is going to be resentment. Every decade the business of farming is becoming more complicated.”
He gives an example of a dispute he encountered some time ago. The farm, valued at over €1 million, was left to the eldest child; one of four siblings. There were non-farming assets of €400,000, which were to be divided among the other three children.
They had not known the contents of the will in advance. One sibling subsequently objected and now the four of them are in mediation as to where they go next. “They are all disappointed with the will,” he says, adding that inter-personal relationships between siblings are often damaged when there is disagreement about a will.
"Succession planning and communication is vital to avoid these things," he says, adding that Teagasc, the agrifood advisory body, offer free seminars in farm transfers. "But every case is different. When you have land that's been in the family for generations, substantial value in assets, family jealousies, inter-generational issues, and marital partners of siblings, there is so much scope for conflict.