Tuda Libby Crews was part of a panel at the January Western Landowners Alliance event on Estate/Succession Planning in Santa Fe. You can read her presentation below.
The title of today’s program “Legacy on the Land” resonates with me so I’m adding a bit of background about my ancestors who settled our land in the early 1800’s. The Caveza de Baca brothers came in ox-drawn carts trailing horses, cattle and sheep and claimed land in what is now the northeastern corner of New Mexico.
As time passed more families joined the growing settlement. At the request of Catholic Missionaries from Mexico, the community came together and built a Catholic Church made of rock. In the late 1870’s the creek came down and washed it away. The Caveza de Baca family donated land and families came together again and on higher ground built another church completed in 1894. Most of the statuary in the church was donated by my family and still bears the Caveza de Baca name painted in gold lettering.
Decades passed. My ancestors demonstrated remarkable fortitude as they experienced wars, the Great Depression, drought, the Dust Bowl, the stock market crash, grasshopper infestations, deaths, more drought, inheritance taxes, climate changes and economic downturns; we are a tough bunch. And we’re still on the land.
Fast-forwarding into the compelling part of this story my husband, Jack and I married young; he was a worldly twenty-two-year-old from Cheyenne, Wyoming. As an eighteen-year-old bride raised on the Circle Bar Ranch near Bueyeros, New Mexico I was not worldly. Jack and I moved to Wyoming where we raised our children, Libby and Ted, and enjoyed a very good life for 37 years. My heart had never left the ranch because those deep roots and love affair with the land connected me on the highest level. We came back home in 2001.
Even though it’s hard for me to share parts of my compelling story I’m disclosing personal experiences with succession over the past 55 years that we’ve been married. In 1960 my Dad announced he and Mother had established an estate plan. There was never an explanation of what was included in the estate plan and I didn’t have sense enough to ask. Over the next forty years Daddy occasionally stated he was “leaving the ranch to the five children equally and the smartest son-of-a-bitch would end up owning the whole God-damned thing”. That was the extent of discussion.
In 1981 my mother, Esther Libby, died very suddenly. That loss remains the most painful life experience I’ve ever had. It was also my introduction to estate planning. Tax laws were quite different back then, and the trust designated my Dad as the first to die so Mother’s early death initiated an estate tax. Fortunately, there was life insurance to cover the large debt.
My dad was lonely. On visits we saw him decline and noticed an overall decline on the ranch. Then Daddy started dating……and three years later married a woman 27-years younger than he with a history of several prior failed marriages. He was wise to secure a pre-nuptial agreement which upon his death provided his widow a cash settlement assuring no access to the ranch assets. My Dad died in 1991 and it wasn’t a big surprise when the grieving widow demanded more than the cash settlement. We got through that part, but sadly, family estate matters went south.
This panel is not the place to fully describe the discord within my family…. nor is there time. I can only assure you it was a stellar example of what you don’t want in a transition to the next generation. My brothers had never gotten along with each other, but they had stayed on the ranch and worked under Daddy’s tight rein and he designated them as Executors and Trustees of the estate. They were impaired by disease and lacked business acumen which soon caused a breakdown in communication dividing brothers and sisters. Our family endured a painful, seven-year ordeal that ended in a legal spin-off, split-up of the large family ranch. My heart still feels a tinge of shame and sadness from that outcome.
Jack and I decided we didn’t want our family to experience what we’d gone through and our adult children vowed they would never be party to such a mess. Before we moved to the ranch we legally separated our estates to protect the Wyoming and New Mexico assets. I own Ute Creek Cattle Company and Jack owns the Wyoming Ranch and his Trust is set up in Wyoming.
It took a few years for me to look death in the face but with input from Libby and Ted, my Revocable Trust was finalized in 2009 with the primary goal of creating a sustainable family business. Modeled from the Trigg Ranch Estate Plan, my children have agreed to hold dear their heritage and continue the legacy of stewardship over land – wildlife – water – livestock and our rural community. For my children and grandchildren and their friends, the ranch remains the place they can always come to.
My Trust holds the beneficiaries responsible for oversight of the business from afar or they can live, work or on-site manage the ranch. They don’t personally contribute to financing the operation. They hold equal shares and can’t divide, give away or buy each other out. No beneficiary’s interest can be attached by creditors or divided in a divorce. The ranch can be sold but if it’s sold the money goes to charity. My mantra is we do not own the land, we borrow it from our children. When a beneficiary dies their children borrow it from their children and must leave the land better for each generation so it goes on and on.
I feel a deep sense of pride that I can stand here today and tell you that with input from my adult kids I’ve established a Trust. I have designated a Power of Attorney, a DNR, a Will, Life Insurance, Vital Records, written End of Life wishes, paid for my cremation, selected the urn for my ashes and planned a big party to celebrate my life. I’ve already distributed many personal items dear to me such as jewelry and Navajo rugs. I recently engaged a younger Estate Attorney who can take my kids forward for a couple of decades. My final task is parting with my large accumulation of “stuff” contained in a semi-trailer……..and.…..before I go “toes-up” I’d like to restore two more buildings on the ranch.
Jack and I are leaving the land better for our children; the restored creek runs water year-round. An adaptive grazing program is in place and the stock-water distribution system provides water to twenty-two pastures. We have good working pens built from a Temple Grandin design. The cow herd of gentle Angus cows produces calves that yield 100% Prime and Choice grades. A 23-acre Wild Bird Sanctuary provides habitat for short grass prairie birds. A tiny remodeled 200-year-old adobe is our charming home.
In Mosquero a restored historic home known as The Rectory serves as a family guest house and revenue-generating Bed & Bath. A nice home was built on the ranch last year for the new Ranch Manager hired to join the succession team. A graduate of the TCU Ranch Management Program he is sharp, has a tremendous work ethic and a sweet little family.
I’ve ranch-romanced my kids since we came home. Libby, a Jackson Hole School Teacher and Ted, a Phoenix Defense Attorney serve on the Board of Directors and stay involved via phone, texting and email. We get along with their spouses, Peter and Sadie Jo, and enjoy our two young granddaughters, Isa and Sadie from Ted’s blended family. Our granddaughter Bella, a sophomore at Fordham University is a willing worker when she visits the ranch. Twin grandsons Bennet and Seth have worked three summers on the ranch. Presently they’re busy with their Eagle Scout projects. Family members receive monthly reports of ranch activities. We continually find new ways to openly communicate.
I’m at peace from what happened almost two decades ago. All the land in our legacy ranch is still in the family. Each ranch is a sound family business. Each sibling makes decisions on how they run their ranch. Each sibling has fewer heirs to deal with. Brothers and sisters have mended fences and reconnected family ties.
One thing I know for certain is……it’s always about people. I have faith that my people will love and steward the ranch long into the future. Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen”. Entwined with my faith is a succession plan and a well-crafted Trust Agreement augmented with open communication. That is a gift to my children, grandchildren and future generations. I believe it’s the most precious gift you can give your family.
As a testament to faith…and powerful DNA…it’s important for you to know that one hundred and twenty-three years later the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church built by those early families is still standing on that high ground and mass is held monthly. For me, it’s a profound example of a legacy for future generations, and it’s what I honor and strive to achieve.