Farms play an important role in the lives of many Georgia families. Current data reveals that Georgia has 9.9 million acres devoted to farms, which equates to more than 42,000 individual farms. While it might seem challenging, some Georgia farmers who end up divorcing are ultimately able to keep their farms. Even though it might make more sense to divide the farm, some farmers discover that there are advantages to keeping a farm open. The following will review some important steps to take if you are interested in keeping your house intact during a divorce.

Communicate The Family Farm Roles Clearly

When farm owners go through a divorce, it’s essential to clarify and agree on the roles each spouse will play in the farm’s operations moving forward. This clear delineation can help prevent conflicts and ensure the smooth running of the farm. Here’s how to structure these discussions and decisions:

  1. Define Current Roles:
    • On-Farm Responsibilities: Identify who is primarily involved in the day-to-day management and labor on the farm.
    • Off-Farm Contributions: Recognize if one spouse has been primarily contributing through off-farm income that supports the farm financially.
  2. Discuss Future Involvement:
    • Continuation of Roles: Decide if these roles will remain the same post-divorce. For instance, will the spouse who worked off-farm continue to contribute financially?
    • Adjustment of Responsibilities: Consider whether adjustments are necessary based on each spouse’s future commitments and interests. This might include one spouse taking on more responsibility on the farm or reducing their involvement.
  3. Financial Implications:
    • Compensation and Support: Discuss how the financial contributions and labor will be valued and compensated. This might involve structured payments or a reevaluation of asset distribution based on the labor and financial input from each spouse.
    • Impact on Asset Division: Consider how ongoing roles and contributions affect the division of farm assets and future income from the farm.
  4. Legal and Formal Agreements:
    • Legal Documentation: Formalize any agreements in legal documents to avoid ambiguity and future disputes. This could be part of the divorce settlement or a separate contract.
    • Consultation with Professionals: Engage with legal and financial advisors to ensure that all agreements are fair, legally sound, and financially viable.
  5. Review and Adjust Periodically:
    • Scheduled Reviews: Set up periodic reviews of the arrangement to adjust roles and financial agreements as needed, especially if the farm’s operations or each individual’s circumstances change.
    • Flexibility for Changes: Allow flexibility in the agreement to accommodate significant changes, such as changes in personal health, market conditions, or other external factors affecting the farm.

Determine How Decisions Will be Made for the Farm

Hopefully, if you have decided to keep your farm intact, you do not argue with your former spouse often. Even if you only have disagreements over one or two things, it is still important to create a system for how decisions will be made on the farm. If these arrangements are made, there is a much greater likelihood that fights will erupt when the two former spouses eventually disagree about something. 

Here’s how to approach setting up this communication system into a clear, actionable list:

  1. Establish Clear Decision-Making Roles:
    • Define Responsibilities: Clearly delineate who is responsible for what aspects of the farm’s operations. This could be based on each person’s expertise, interest, or availability.
    • Decision Authority: Specify who has the final say in different areas, such as financial decisions, daily operations, or long-term planning.
  2. Develop a Conflict Resolution Protocol:
    • Regular Meetings: Schedule regular meetings to discuss ongoing operations and upcoming decisions. This keeps both parties informed and engaged.
    • Mediation Plan: Agree on a third-party mediator who can be called upon if disagreements escalate beyond simple disputes. This could be a trusted advisor, a professional mediator, or someone with legal expertise in agriculture.
  3. Implement Communication Strategies:
    • Effective Communication Channels: Set up reliable and consistent channels for communication, such as weekly emails, shared digital calendars, or regular phone calls.
    • Documentation: Keep written records of decisions and discussions. This not only helps in maintaining clarity but also serves as a reference if disputes arise.
  4. Legal and Formal Agreements:
    • Update Legal Documents: Ensure that all legal documents reflect the new management arrangement. This might include updating wills, ownership documents, or partnership agreements.
    • Review by Legal Professionals: Have all arrangements reviewed by legal professionals to ensure they are fair, enforceable, and compliant with local laws.
  5. Plan for Escalation:
    • Escalation Process: Define a clear process for escalating issues that cannot be resolved through regular communication or mediation. This might involve more formal legal intervention or arbitration.
    • Flexibility for Reevaluation: Include provisions to reevaluate and adjust the decision-making system periodically or when significant changes occur in the business or personal lives of the stakeholders.
  6. Foster a Cooperative Mindset:
    • Focus on Shared Goals: Regularly remind each other of the shared goals, such as the prosperity of the farm, the welfare of any animals involved, and the legacy for future generations.
    • Respect and Professionalism: Commit to maintaining a professional attitude and respect towards each other, regardless of personal feelings.

Itemize Farm Assets

One of the most important things that divorcing farm owners must remember to do is to inventory what assets are owned by the farm as well as what each spouse owns individually. In many cases, it is common for spouses to disagree about the nature of certain property. While one spouse might view a horse as belonging to the farm, the other spouse might view the animal as belonging to him or her individually. If you plan on running the family farm for years to come, now is the best time to create a document that determines who owns each asset.

Consider Changing the Farm’s Business Structures

Restructuring the family farm during or after a divorce can help align the business with the new realities of ownership and management. Here’s a detailed approach on how to consider restructuring and the potential advantages and disadvantages of different business structures:

  1. Evaluate Current Business Structure:
    • Assess the Existing Structure: Review how the farm is currently structured (e.g., sole proprietorship, partnership). Consider the effectiveness of this structure in light of the divorce.
    • Identify Changes in Roles and Ownership: Reflect on how the roles and ownership stakes of each spouse are changing post-divorce and how these changes affect the farm’s operation.
  2. Explore Business Structure Options:
    • Close Corporation: This structure might offer benefits in terms of fewer formalities and restrictions on shareholders, which could be beneficial if the farm remains in the family.
      • Advantages: Limited liability, potential tax benefits, and ease of transferring shares within the family.
      • Disadvantages: Possible conflicts due to fewer governance structures, limitations on shareholder numbers.
    • Limited Liability Corporation (LLC): Provides flexibility and protects personal assets from business liabilities.
      • Advantages: Limited liability, operational flexibility, and pass-through taxation.
      • Disadvantages: Potentially higher cost to form and maintain, complex operating agreements.
    • General Partnerships: Suitable if both spouses intend to remain actively involved in the farm.
      • Advantages: Simplicity of setup and operation, direct control over decisions.
      • Disadvantages: Joint liability for business debts and decisions made by any partner.
  3. Consider Future Needs and Goals:
    • Future Scalability: Think about whether the business might need to scale up or down in the future and how each structure accommodates this growth or contraction.
    • Long-Term Vision: Align the business structure with the long-term vision for the farm, considering factors like succession planning, potential sale, or expansion.
  4. Consult with Professionals:
    • Legal Advice: Engage a lawyer who specializes in family business and agricultural enterprises to understand the legal implications of each structure.
    • Financial Consultation: Talk to a financial advisor or accountant who can provide insights on the tax implications and financial management of each business structure.
  5. Make an Informed Decision:
    • Weigh Pros and Cons: Balance the advantages and disadvantages of each structure in terms of legal protection, tax benefits, operational flexibility, and personal liability.
    • Joint Decision-Making: Ensure that both parties are involved in the decision-making process to avoid future conflicts and to make sure the structure meets both parties’ needs.
  6. Implement Changes and Monitor Progress:
    • Formalize the Restructure: Once a decision is made, formalize the restructure through legal processes.
    • Monitor and Adjust: Regularly review the farm’s performance and the effectiveness of the new structure, making adjustments as necessary.

By discussing what business structure works for the family farm now, you can avoid uncertainties in the future about how the farm should be run. By decreasing any uncertainties about how things will proceed in the future, you can eliminate numerous problems that would otherwise appear down the road. 

Speak with an Experienced Georgia Divorce Lawyer

Farm families facing divorce may encounter many unique complications. If you need the assistance of an experienced family law attorney to navigate this difficult time, do not hesitate to speak with an attorney at Vayman & Teitelbaum, P.C. today.