A HISTORIC CASE: The Difficulties of Passing On a Plantation
W orking in elder law, I’ve learned that people treasure all sorts of things. What may look from an outsider’s perspective like a simple trinket can prove to be a deeply important family heirloom. Helping pass on these items of rich personal significance to the next generation has always been one of the most important parts of my job. But one year, I had the opportunity to help pass on a piece of property that stood at the juncture of family importance and public historical significance. A client in his 90s had come to me in an effort to keep his home in the family. But this was no ordinary house; it was one of the oldest plantations in the state. Sitting at close to 2,000 acres, this property had been in my client’s family for generations. Unfortunately, the aging owner had no spouse or children to be granted survivor’s rights. Hungry real estate developers were already beginning to circle, wanting to buy the property and subdivide it. I say important without meaning grand. Plantation houses are a dark reminder of the most egregious chapter in our nation’s history. But as painful as our state’s legacy of slavery is to face, the last thing we should ever do is gloss over or tear down the evidence of that institution’s existence. The deep wounds left by chattel slavery are still healing to this day. Concealing those scars of oppression only benefits future oppressors.
However, maintaining this historic property while also keeping it in the client’s family would prove difficult. Like many facing the estate planning process, this client was less than enthusiastic about having other people involved in his affairs. But he came to realize that his peace of mind over maintaining this historic heirloom outweighed his need for independence. That’s when he reached out to extended family for help. If you’ve been in my office for any extended period of time, you’ll know I have a mantra: “Your people are your plan.” We can draft the tightest legal documents and the most airtight estate plans, but none of that means anything if you don’t have trusted family or friends willing to step up to the plate. Thankfully, this elderly gentleman had extended family members who were able to help him in his time of need. The client had someone in the family with the passion and work ethic to preserve and maintain his interests and health in his later years. Thanks to the actions of this family member, the man was in a far less vulnerable situation than he had been previously and was able to actively pursue his estate planning goals. Both he and his cousin were determined to find the right fit for the plantation — someone in the family with the gumption to preserve and maintain such a sprawling historic property.
As our law office often does for vulnerable clients, we threw ourselves into researching the man’s remaining extended family and were able to reach out to a niece. Thankfully, this niece and her husband were willing to take on the monumental responsibility. Having a 2,000-acre piece of state history suddenly become your responsibility is a little more troublesome than having an unwanted china set bequeathed to you. Together with the client and this young couple, we were able to draw up an estate plan that ensured the property would get the care it needed while remaining in the family. I cannot emphasize how much these young folks stepped up to the plate. They committed to the preservation of the property and have placed much of it into a conservation easement to protect it from development. It all goes back to my mantra: An estate plan is nothing without caring, compassionate people. As unique as this case was, at the end of the day, my team and I treated it like any other. National historic significance or no, each one of us has treasures. It’s our job to help you
ensure they are passed on to the right people who will treat them with the care and respect they deserve.
Do you have estate planning or elder law-related questions? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with Asked and Answered in the subject line. Your identity will be kept confidential. The opinions offered in this column are not intended to replace or substitute any financial, medical, legal, or other professional advice.
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