I recently attended a program on the financial issues in farm divorce presented by another rural attorney with 20+ years of experience dealing with the nuances of farm divorce and rural practice. About halfway into a discussion on disparate division of assets when dealing with struggling farms, a very important attorney interrupted the speaker with a question. You could tell this person was a very important because she introduced herself as Jane Smith with the law firm of Dead White Guy, Really Old White Guy, Old White Guy, and White Guy (a venerable metropolitan big law firm), was impeccably dressed in a tailored power suit, carried herself in a predatory manner that screamed “I’m just waiting for my stress-induced myocardial infarction”, and prefaced her question with “while the majority of my practice is metropolitan, I’ve handled 3 farm divorces” before launching in to a 5 minute critique of the educational levels of the clients she had represented, that any farm should be classified as struggling, the gall of the rural courts for even considering granting any thing other than a strictly equitable division of the assets, and the audacity of her client, and the opposing counsel and his client (apparently they did not listen to her dictates as to how things should be done). Apparently, this was a hot button issue for her. But lady, it’s apparent that you’re not from around here.
Now, I have to admit that she had a very valid main point – from a metropolitan point of view it makes little sense to accept a settlement that pays 38 cents on the dollar when there are millions of dollars of assets available in the form of land, buildings, equipment, livestock, and crops both in the field and at the elevator. After all the equitable solution would be to divide assets & debts equally; to sell off and settle up. However, from a rural perspective, it can and often does make sense to settle for 38 cents on the dollar if it means that the departing spouse walks off with cash in their pocket and the knowledge that their ex still has the potential to continue earning a living and to be in a position to pay support and maintenance – selling off and settling up means selling off someone’s means of employment. It can and often does make sense to take that 38 cents on the dollar if the departing spouse was not actively involved in the farming operation because this spouse is more likely to have an off-farm job and a regular paycheck. But lady, you need to check that attitude at the city limits, ’cause it’s just going to raise the hackles of us country folk and sure hits a number of my buttons.Sure, the typical rural client has a high school education, perhaps a two-year degree from a technical college, or if they are young enough they might have a 4 year degree, but don’t assume that a lack of formal education translates to uneducated or unsophisticated – most rural clients have doctoral degrees from the University of Practical Experience. They understand contracts and the real cost/value of money. They are well aware of the concepts of leverage, the time value of money, and risk analysis. They know what it is to have to make bet-the-business decisions and they do so every year when they decide what to plant, when to plant it, when to harvest it, and when to market it. They understand business cycles, market forces, and economic upheavals in a personal, visceral way that only a few “city folk” ever will.
The family farm is not about to shuffle off this mortal coil any time soon. Sure there are a few that are struggling and some that have cease operation (usually because the kids have taken other career paths and the parents wish to retire), but, at least in my neck of the woods, the majority of family farms are doing quite well. It’s not the family farm that’s the problem, it’s extrapolating from a sample set of 3 and drawing a faulty conclusion that’s the problem. Lady, your 3 unemployed clients may have had little interest in farming, little education, and a complete absence of common sense, but they sure don’t paint an accurate picture of my neighbors or their farms.
Rural attorneys, rural clients, and rural courts understand how these things play out – it’s not that we’re ignoring your expertise or advice out of some fiendish male-supremist conspiracy, it’s simply that we know your way just does not meet the clients’ needs. Our way may not be equal, but it might, just might, be fair. There is the possibility that we’re not just operating out of blind chauvinistic pedagogy, it could be that we know that selling a farm mean’s selling a family’s heritage and possibly a child’s legacy. That by leaving those hundred’s of thousands of dollars worth of assets with the farmer, we not only provide him with the ability to continue his livelihood (and thus be able to pay support and/or maintenance), we provide their children with a future (believe it or not, farm kids often want to grow up and be farmers – no farm = no farmer).
The lawyers who comprise the small firms that provide legal representation to rural areas may never be that AV-rated, SuperLawyers, Rising Stars, hot-shot rainmakers that prowl the hallowed halls of Dead White Guy, Really Old White Guy, Old White Guy, and White Guy, but we do our best to advocate for and provide service to our clients. Lady, it’s not audacity that causes us to ignore the your oh-so sage advice; it just that we’ve learned what works, what’s practical, and what’s in our clients’ best interests, and you haven’t.