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Legacy of forestland: Four things to do before you die

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September 20, 2022

Legacy of forestland: Four things to do before you die

Forest landowners are generally looking toward future opportunities — the next project, the next season, the next harvest.

But many aren’t looking far enough ahead — to the next generation.

Maintaining healthy forestland is a long-term commitment and because of the immense benefits of Texas forests, ensuring that forest land remains forested after an owner’s death shouldn’t be left to chance.

Forest landowners often cite legacy as one of the top reasons for owning land, with many planning to transfer ownership to the next generation. Most forests will outlive their current owners, putting family forestland at risk of fragmentation, change in land use or even leaving the family if the proper steps haven’t been taken to ensure a smooth transition.

“If you don’t plan for it, then you’re leaving your desires up to the legal system, and who knows how that will shake out,” said Shane Harrington, Texas A&M Forest Service Senior Project Manager. “It’s very important that landowners act now while they’re in good health to start talking about that process.”

Planning and preparation are critical to ensuring forests in Texas continue to be productive well into the future.

About 95 percent of the forestland in Texas is privately owned, which means the management of the valuable natural forest resources — as well as the benefits they provide — rests in the hands of individual landowners.

Texas A&M Forest Service can help forest landowners develop and implement long-term land management plans to ensure their property remains in forests, intact and in the family.

Creating a plan for the future of forestland can seem overwhelming, but it can be managed with just a few steps. The process should be ongoing and evolve with the family over time through communication, family engagement and documentation.

Step 1: Determine your vision

The first step in creating a plan for the legacy of forestland is identifying what you want to preserve.

“We love our land. Anybody who’s had it for a long time, they care deeply about it,” said Gretchen Riley, Texas A&M Forest Service Forest Systems Department Head. “We’ve invested blood, sweat, tears and love. We want to make sure what we love and care about it is maintained beyond our lifetimes. I think one of the things we want to think about first is what is it about our place that we love so much. What really is it that we want to last beyond us.”

This step includes outlining your goals and things that are non-negotiable, as well as identifying people who might play a role or have an interest in the future of your land.

Ensure that your goals are in alignment with those of potential heirs and that they have the desire and means necessary to continue managing the property in a way that’s consistent with your vision. If immediate family members aren’t interested in becoming owners, consider alternatives, such as extended family members, friends and neighbors.

There are many options to consider, including putting the property in a trust, conservation easement or life estate.

Put the plan in writing to help guide you through the rest of the process.

Step 2: Make your wishes known and determine methods for going about it

Once the priorities for your land have been determined, it’s time to decide how to go about putting them in place.

Informing family members and others with an interest in the land of the vision and putting the plan in writing is important to avoid confusion or assumptions about details or conditions of future land use.

“Make it clear, write it out,” Riley said. “You always, always want to get a will in place to identify who you want to own the property.”

Determining ownership of property when there is no will in place can be difficult and could result in undesired situations, including the sale of the property.

Engaging the next generation in the management of the property can build a strong foundation for the eventual change in ownership.

Because the goals may evolve over time, it’s important to maintain the communication and keep related legal documents updated.

Step 3: Consult the experts

Estate planning is usually not a do-it-yourself venture, with complex legal issues requiring the expertise of a professional. A real estate attorney can help sort through the various options and draft the legal paperwork.

“You have to get an attorney involved,” Riley said. “Anyone else offering you advice isn’t qualified to provide it and they can’t set it up for you the way an attorney can to ensure that your wishes are carried out.”

A real estate attorney will be well-versed in the various tax, probate and valuation issues surrounding assets of a forestland transfer.

Look for an attorney with experience in estate planning who will guide you through the process to ensure your vision for your land is communicated clearly. Interview several candidates for the job, talking to each about your needs. Select the one who is most attentive to your wishes.

Consider consulting other professionals, such as an accountant who specializes in estate planning, a forester or natural resource specialist and perhaps even an insurance agent.

Step 4: Share your love for the forest

Now, much like a homeowner applying a fresh coat of paint before listing a home for sale, it’s time to work on the curb appeal by doing some projects and improving the landscape so that others can see that it’s been properly cared for.

“Even if the people in your family feel the same way as you do about the land,” Riley said, “they’ll feel a lot better about it if it’s in good shape.”

There is also an opportunity for you to involve the heirs in management decisions and help them hone their skills around the property.

Other ways to build the family’s bond with the property include fostering family traditions on your property, sharing stories and exploring the land through activities such as hunting, fishing and hiking.

At this point in the process, you should feel confident that you have a plan in place for your legacy of land stewardship to continue beyond your death.

Revisit the plan regularly to ensure it continues to reflect your goals and maintain communication with family members to keep everyone updated about changes in circumstances or plans.

Planning for the future can be challenging and emotional but doing so can protect the family’s assets while outlining an orderly transfer of ownership. A strong legacy plan also ensures your land is sustained and managed so its natural resources continue to be healthy and productive.

The future of forests in Texas rests in the hands of today’s forest landowners. The process takes time and effort, but the outcome can be everlasting.

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