John and Jean—not their real names—had long made plans to retire once John turned 65. They had dreams of travelling and spending more time with family, who lived far away. Plus, it simply was time to let go of their farm operation.
John’s retirement was two years away. The farming operation was held jointly with John’s brother, Pete, and Pete’s wife, Petra.
John was 10 years older than Pete. Pete had known for years of John’s plans, but neither had initiated a conversation until two years prior to the planned retirement. John and Jean needed to sell their share of the farm, and they needed a certain amount to retire. Pete and Petra would need to buy them out and were unsure how to manage that financially.
All four of them knew one thing: At the end of it all they wanted to celebrate Christmas together.
The two couples had raised their families on the farm. It had provided summer jobs for their children and shared memories for everyone. Like many family-owned businesses, it was a source of pride and financial security for the family.
At the same time, a business such as this can be a source of conflict and tension during times of transition. Buyouts can be complicated. The next generation can have different views. Prospective successors may not have the financial means. Deep disagreements can arise.
John and Jean shared their intention of retirement. Jean really wanted to have everything in place by John’s 65th birthday. Two years before the retirement, they had the business appraised. From here on it was difficult to move forward. Pete was not sure how to finance the buyout. John and Jean looked on with frustration. They knew something had to happen.
The couples chose to enter a process of intergenerational mediation that involved succession planning. The mediator, a neutral third party, helped them express their hopes and concerns.
Since Pete and Petra’s children were interested in joining the family business, the issue of succession planning was added to the buyout issue. The next owners, even if they had grown up within the business, needed training to take on the roles formerly filled by John and Jean. With the help of a succession planner, they identified necessary skills and knowledge to manage the business.
With the help of mediating third parties, the couples started to make progress. At times, it felt really slow, as if nothing was happening, while the retirement dateline loomed. Other times, positive movement was evident.
By that point, three families were working together. Through it, the families were able to maintain harmony. Neither of them walked away a winner or loser. One walked away thinking they paid a bit too much and the other thinking they did not get quite enough. They reached a mutual agreement by the time John retired. Jean’s wish came true.
And they were able to celebrate Christmas together, as they continue to do.
Not every family has the need for estate or succession planning. Still, they may benefit from planning for the future and having a conversation around hopes and fears which they see or perceive. Even if a monetary inheritance is small, there may be heirlooms that hold strong attachments.
Intergenerational mediators and succession planners can be important partners for promoting peace within families, creating transparent plans for the future and making sure families remain happy to celebrate together, whether the celebration is a retirement, Christmas or both.
Cathrin van Sintern-Dick is a former pastor and chaplain who now serves as regional ministry associate for Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. She is also a trained and experienced mediator.