My friend, Cal, was a lawyer who counseled hundreds of farm families on legal matters. One of the issues he pushed hardest was the need for a will.

“Here's a typical scenario,” he once told me. “A son has been working with his father on the home farm or ranch for a number of years. It's understood he'll inherit the ranch when the old man dies, but they have nothing on paper.

“At some point, the son's wife asks him what they have if his dad dies. The son tells her he'll get the farm. She points out there's nothing on paper, so legally they have nothing.

“The boy talks to the dad, who asks: ‘What's the matter, don't you trust me?’ The boy assures the dad he trusts him, so the dad says: ‘Oh, you think I'm going to die.’ The boy says, ‘Oh, no, dad… you'll never die.’ He then goes home and climbs the walls. He's trapped. He can't get his dad to put their agreement in writing, so he can't provide his family with any real security.”

No will, what happens?

People get funny ideas about wills. Some think planning what to do about their estate somehow will cause them to die. Others don't know how to divide the assets among their children, so they put it off. Cal said such people would tell him: “They'll figure out how to divide it after I'm gone.” He says nothing could be further from the truth.

Many families have been torn apart by disagreements over who should get what. In addition, such families don't always have much say in what happens with the estate anyway. The government decides for them.

When a person dies “intestate” (without a will), the government in most states appoints a trustee to oversee the allocation of assets. It's expensive and often very unsatisfying for all family members. Cal used to say: “You wouldn't invite your neighbors to divide up your estate after you're gone, so why would you let the government do it?”

Why make a will?

If you died tomorrow, who would take over your ranch? Does your wife have all the information she'll need to deal with the legal and tax obligations she'll face? It can be hard enough under normal circumstances, but when she's grief-stricken, leaving her with an accounting nightmare and no knowledge of the ranch's business dealings is nothing short of cruel.

Is one or more of your children involved in the ranch? Do you have written, legally binding agreements with them? If not, stop reading and do it right now. It's that important.

Feel uncomfortable talking with your family about who should get what when you die? Hire a facilitator. Check the phone book business pages or the Internet for “meeting facilitators” or “family counselors.”

When Elizabeth and I got married, we had five children between us (my three and her two). We talked at length about what should happen with our stuff if we were to die; then we got a lawyer to help us write a will. (Don't write a will on your own. It's too easy to make simple mistakes that nullify it.)

We've updated the will three times in the past 15 years as our estate changed. We'll continue to update it as needed.

We believe it's important, and Cal would agree. He once told me of a couple who wrote their will when their oldest daughter was a baby. They left everything to her at that time.

They later had a son, who worked with his father for 20 years with the understanding he would own the farm when the dad died. They had no written agreement. When the parents died, the daughter got the farm because they'd never updated their will.

Don't you be like that!

Edmonton-based Noel McNaughton lectures to groups on “Farming/Ranching at Midlife — Strategies for a Successful Second Age.” To learn more, call 780/432-5492, e-mail farm@midlife-men.com, or visit www.midlife-men.com.