Get your family talking about estate transfer or Uncle Sam will wind up the big winner.

Most producers would probably prefer a trip to the dentist over an appointment to design an estate transfer plan. But if you want to almost guarantee a pain-free transfer of ownership, don't put that trip on hold. Delaying transfer decisions is costly.

Improper or no estate planning can cost nearly 55% of the average total value of all your assets including life insurance, says Bob Fetsch, family life specialist at Colorado State University (CSU).

Mapping your estate transfer plan, regardless of asset size, becomes increasingly important as the average age of farmers and ranchers nationwide rises.

In Colorado, for example, one-third of ranchers and farmers are 60 or older. Fetsch says if the current trends continue, in 35 years:

* The average age of farmers and ranchers will rise from 53 to 58. (In the U.S., average age will be 57.)

* One of every three Colorado farmers and ranchers will leave production agriculture. (In the U.S., one of two farmers will leave.)

* One of every 10 acres in Colorado ranches and farms will be lost from agricultural production. (In the U.S., one of every five acres will be lost.)

Despite these staggering statistics and often told horror stories of estates being lost to the Internal Revenue Service, a CSU survey shows fewer than 3% of farmers and ranchers have a complete estate transfer plan.

Farm and ranch families are five times as likely to write a successful transfer plan as are non-agricultural family businesses. Even so, CSU reports that one out of two has not written a transfer plan.

"Transfer and succession is a complicated issue with legal, tax, economic and human relationship components," says Fetsch, who believes the estate transfer process is one of the most stressful events a family encounters. "It ranks right up there with death and marriage," he says.

So, he recommends you build a transfer planning team with a knowledgeable attorney, tax advisor, accountant and family life specialist. In remote rural areas, ask neighbors for referrals.

Normally, what gets people started in developing a plan is the scare of Uncle Sam and transfer taxes, says Kathy Boyd, estate planner from Limon, CO.

Boyd, who grew up on a farm and ranch and has 10 years' experience in transfer planning, says, "Do something, even it's not 100 percent right. You can always make changes later. Doing damage control after the fact isn't as valuable as being preventive."

In fact, Boyd suggests viewing an estate plan like a moving target. She says it's never completely done and routinely needs updating.

First Step - Start Talking Getting families to begin talking about estate planning can be difficult. But, that's where the procedure begins. "Think of the process as a team where you're the owner, coach and quarterback," says Boyd. "Everyone needs to be a part of the team, including your accountant and attorney."

To start, take small steps and decide who should be involved in the estate transfer decision-making process, Fetsch advises. "Think about who will get their nose bent out of shape if they're not included," he says. "Then, initiate family meetings and start talking."

Making Decisions Once families start meeting, the decision-making process kicks in. Here are three decision-making approaches Fetsch says are available.

* Autocratic. With this style, all but one family member could potentially be unhappy with decisions.

* Democratic. With this style, majority rules so there is potential for almost half the family members to be unhappy.

* Consensucratic. With this style, all major issues are negotiated until no family member has a major objection.

Fetsch claims that with the consensucratic style, everyone in a family can make decisions that should last because all agree they can live with the decision and not sabotage it.

Strategic Planning Values are at the heart of strategic planning," Fetsch says. "For a successful transfer, it's important to learn what you value. Then, find out what children want and expect."

Often, when Fetsch conducts estate planning workshops, he insists families prepare a brief mission statement describing what their family business does now. Then, he asks them to write a clear, concise shared vision statement of where they want the family business to be in three to five years.

A shared mission statement shouldn't be long or complicated, either. "It can be as simple as one I helped with that said the family wanted the operation to be: 'Harmonious, consensual, profitable and enjoyable.' Once you have it, you've got a powerful ship headed in the right direction," Fetsch says.

To help make strategic planning successful, Fetsch says to listen well to what stakeholders want and need, and what they value. Then, to resolve conflict, listen for needs, not positions. Ask: "What do you need here?"

In addition, he strongly suggests facilitating, not dictating, to come to a shared vision. "Don't be afraid to share your dreams. It's important," he says.

Since all families have some unfinished business - things they haven't talked about - Fetsch says to set some rules.

Here are statements he says to use that often help members feel safe:

* I won't use what you say here later.

* I'll listen well and then repeat back what you say.

* I'll not blame, shame or be violent.

* I'll ask directly for what I want, rather than force another person to accept my way. For example, Fetsch says to phrase an issue like: "I'd like you and I to talk about the cash rent on that 150 acres, etc."

* If I get angry, I'll call for a time out to cool down and relax. Then, set a time to get together to talk further.

"Too often, it's the people problems that get in the way of a successful estate transfer plan," Fetsch says.

The purpose of a family meeting is to foster open communication among family members to make decisions and solve problems. A structured family meeting helps this to happen when a family has decided they're ready, says Bob Fetsch, family life specialist at Colorado State University.

Here are steps Fetsch claims will help you get and stay on the right track.

* Meet at regularly scheduled times.

* Rotate meeting responsibilities. Rotate the chairperson role so others can learn different responsibilities.

* Encourage all family members to participate. Sometimes, he says, family members don't want to participate. "If that's the case, say something like: 'If you don't come, then we could make some decisions you might not like.' "

* Discuss one topic and solve one problem at a time.

* Use "I" messages and problem solving steps. For example, Fetsch explains, "Rather than say 'You never close the gate,' say 'When you leave the gate open I feel mad. What I want is for you to close the gate and I'm willing to remind you when you leave it open.' "

* Summarize the discussion to keep the family on track and to focus the discussion on one issue at a time.

* Make decisions by consensus.

* Once you think you have an agreement to a point that no one has major objections to, check it out to see if you have reached consensus. "What I'm hearing us say we can all agree to do is ..."

* If things get "too hot to handle," anyone can call for a break.

* End with something that's fun and affirms family members.

"Remember, just as family members grow and change over time, so do the rules and guidelines for holding family meetings," Fetsch says.

"The key is to be flexible and use what works to help your family ride the ups and downs," he says. "Families that know how to adapt well to inevitable changes tend to have higher marital and family satisfaction levels."

To get a copy of CSU's "Manage anger through family meetings," No. 10.249, contact Bob Fetsch at 970/491-5648