Make a List and Check It Twice: Tips for Discussing Succession Planning This Holiday Season

During the holiday season, many people reunite with family members they see only a few times a year. For families who work in agriculture or run small businesses, these gatherings can provide an opportunity to discuss the future of the operation with all the interested parties around one table.

older couple, younger couple, and little girl with short hair gather around a table for a family discussion. Everyone is smiling except the little girl.
Photo by JackF,

These conversations can be uncomfortable. No one likes to spend time thinking about what might happen following the death of a loved one. However, the discomfort will be all the greater if a tragedy occurs and the family ranch or other business is not prepared to conduct a transition.

Resources are available through the University of Wyoming Extension and Wyoming Department of Agriculture to support people as they navigate the complexities of succession planning in family-run farms, ranches, and small businesses.

Have a plan and make it known

If a primary operator or manager wishes for their children, extended family, employees, and others who are involved to carry on their work after they pass, it is important for them to have a plan. It is also critical that the plan is known to the people involved and that updates are clearly communicated.

The four types of planning recommended by the UW Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics are business planning, retirement planning, succession/transfer planning, and estate planning.

  • Business planning focuses on internal business growth and development.
  • Retirement planning involves finding financial security after stepping back from active participation.
  • Succession planning describes how control will be passed to the next generation.
  • Estate planning protects your assets during the time of transition.

A full course and guide to these four phases of planning for business transfer was developed by Rod Sharp, Jeff Tranel, and John Hewlett and can be found at Contact UW ag economist John Hewlett with questions and for more information at (307) 766-2166 or

These resources are also available through UW Extension offices, which are present in every county in the state.

Manage professional relationships

A complete succession plan should include the details of the business professionals and relationships that contribute to the operation’s function. This team of professionals may include an accountant, a banker, a lawyer, and an estate planner, among others. Bring the kids or heirs to meetings with these people to help them understand the business processes required to keep the operation going.

When it is time for the next generation to take the reins, this will help smooth the transition. As college students come home for the holidays and other key people are in the area, consider scheduling an end-of-year meeting and making introductions.

Choose a neutral space and time

Many folks in the northeast corner of Wyoming were fortunate to attend one of the series of succession-planning workshops hosted by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and guest speaker Wesley Tucker, University of Missouri field specialist in agricultural business and policy, last month. One of Tucker’s suggestions was to host discussions about family business decisions in a neutral location like the back room of a local restaurant or a public library meeting room.

tanned old man with white hair stands between two younger men with a hand on each of their shoulders. He is smiling and the two younger men have their arms crossed but seem to have reached an agreement.
Photo by Andrey Popov,

This simple shift can help eliminate some of the power dynamics and emotions experienced during a traditional meeting around the kitchen table where Mom and Dad (or Grandma and Grandpa) have always been in charge. A neutral setting helps build a level playing field where input can be weighed and judged more objectively.

It also goes without saying that difficult family meetings should be set aside for a time separate from cherished holiday traditions so that potential disagreements do not spoil the festivities.

Outside mediators can help navigate tough conversations

Succession planning conversations are difficult. Each family will have a unique perspective and approach. Determining how property and business assets will be divided among children can quickly become contentious and heated. This is especially true when some siblings are actively involved in the operation and some are not.

If conflict becomes unmanageable and a family needs help getting through it, an outside facilitator can make sure everyone is being heard and can help families peel back the layers to get to the heart of certain contested points. The Wyoming Department of Agriculture provides voluntary, confidential, low-cost mediation services. For more information and to request a mediator, visit or contact Mediation Coordinator Lucy Pauley at (307) 777-8788.

The holiday season provides many reasons to gather. This year, consider taking the opportunity to initiate or continue conversations about family business succession planning.

Micah Most is the University of Wyoming Extension agriculture and natural resources educator serving Johnson County. He can be reached at or (307) 684-7522.

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