Transferring Wealth through Land Conservation
By: Thomas L. Daniels
The United States is about to experience its largest-ever intergenerational transfer of wealth: more than $10 trillion are expected to change hands in the next 10 to 20 years. Much of this wealth transfer will include hundreds of millions of acres of family-owned forests, ranchlands, and farmlands. How the heirs use or dispose of those lands will greatly affect America’s food and fiber industries, development patterns, and environment.
While the estate tax is due to expire in 2010, it will return in 2011 with only a $1 million exemption.
In the Pension Reform Act of 2006, Congress expanded the income tax deduction limits for donated easements, but only until the end of 2007 (Learn about the extension in the 2008 farm bill) could deduct up to 50% of their Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) each year for up to 16 years or up to the dollar value of the appraised conservation easement. Farmers could deduct up to 100% of their AGI. Private land trusts- which have conserved almost 40 million acres nationwide- were especially busy last year, a testament to how landowners respond to greater incentives to conserve their land and pass their land intact to the next generation. When the Farm Bill passes, it may make the higher income tax deductions permanent.
To help landowners understand their options, the Resources First Foundation (RFF), a small Maine-based outfit, has built a series of websites helpful to organizations and professionals with expertise in land conservation. The Private Landowner Network provides landowners with a robust menu of tools and contacts for land stewardship and transferring land to the next generation. Go to the website, type in your zip code and all of the land conservation professionals and resources in your area appear on your computer screen. The tax site contains the most up to date federal and state land conservation programs and tax incentives.
Amos Eno, the founder of RFF, argues that America has spent over a century promoting public land acquisition and regulation, and has neglected private sector stewardship and initiative. RFF websites have received more than two million visitors since 2000, and the average length of each site visit to the tax site is over one hour, indicating that landowners are studying their options.
Farmland preservation professionals generally keep a plethora of brochures in their offices about conservation easements and conservation practices to hand out to landowners. Information about estate planning is also very important. Some localities go an extra step and provide estate planning seminars. Harford County, Maryland’s farmland preservation program has been conducting an estate planning seminar for the last decade, helping farmers make the connection between easement payments and investing in such a way that development can no longer be seen as the only way for a farmer to retire.
Humorist Will Rogers once advised people to buy land because “they ain’t makin’ any more of it.” With estate planning added as a tool, preservation professionals can make more opportunities to keep the land they have.
Find out if your local Ag extension office or Conservation District is offering any seminars in your area.