No one is ever truly prepared for the unexpected, but until it happens we often don’t realise how unprepared we really are. That was certainly true for Angela Fox and her four children, who tragically lost their husband, father and farming partner, Jay in a farm accident on December 23, 2011.
Speaking at the 2017 Manitoba Farm Women’s Conference in Brandon in November, Fox shared her experiences and the things she believes every farm woman should be aware of in the event of a sudden death or disability on the farm.
At 33 years old, Fox’s life changed forever that December day, but she has worked hard to carry on farming and raise her family. “An important thing we realized is that when someone we love dies we’ll get lots of advice, but there’s a huge difference between being the executor of the estate and trying to define your life after you have lost someone you love and that is a key part of your family and your farming operation,” said Fox. “It doesn’t matter if it’s your family or workers, if that instrumental person has suddenly been taken away from the farm operation, it changes everything.”
After Jay’s death, Fox had enough on her plate with four young children, aged two, four, five and 14 at home but the farm — which at the time was a 400 head cow-calf operation near Eddystone, Manitoba — had to continue to function the next day.
Life goes on
“The next morning, if time just would have stood still and we could just be in that sorrow it would have been OK but it doesn’t. The cows needed feeding and the chores needed to be done,” said Fox. “When it first happens there are lots of people around you, and then as time goes on you have to cope on your own. My dad was with me for a month but I can’t imagine if he had gone a week into it, because as time went on there were things I didn’t know I would need extra help with.”
Fox says although there were some things that she and Jay had prepared well, there were many other things they just hadn’t thought of. Ironically, they’d had a conversation about Jay’s funeral wishes, so Fox knew exactly what he wanted and was able to fulfill them. It’s unusual for a couple so young to have had that conversation, but Fox says it’s an important one to have with both your partner and family. “We had moved out from Saskatchewan and not all of Jay’s family wanted him to be buried in Manitoba, but because we had that conversation and he had mentioned his wishes to his mom and dad it ended up making it easier because otherwise that might have been something that we disagreed on,” she said. “Having that conversation is so important for the people left behind because it gives them a great deal of healing.”
Proper documents stop family fights
Basically, Fox advises to organize things into paper and people. On the paper side, a will is vitally important. A stumbling block for Jay and Angela was who to appoint as guardian over their four children if something happened to both of them. They eventually resolved the issue, but she advises not to allow tough decisions to be a roadblock to making your wishes clear through a will.
It also prevents family disputes or bad feelings at a time when everyone is feeling emotional and more irrational than usual. “Everybody’s hope is we don’t want to leave our families so that they are broken at the end,” said Fox. “I think that is clearly eliminated by properly taking care of your paperwork and properly sharing what your wishes are.”
When the family is also involved in a farm business together, the estate can be much more complex, especially if there are farming and non-farming children. It takes careful planning to make sure everyone is treated fairly, and that can’t start early enough. “You have to think about how you are going to make it fair,” said Fox.
Even then there are traps and loopholes it’s easy to fall into if you aren’t getting good advice from a financial planner or accountant. As an example, if the estate is set up so that when the parents die the boys get the farm assets and the girls get the cash, potentially all the bills (such as lawyer fees, funeral expenses etc) are paid out of the estate, which could reduce the girls’ cash amount but doesn’t affect the boys’ fixed assets.
Have your own account
Jay and Angela had a bank account that required both to sign cheques. The day that Jay passed the farm changed from a partnership to a sole proprietorship and that froze the bank accounts. Fortunately, the couple had recently sold their calves so the bills were mostly paid, but the cash the family needed to live on was suddenly tied up. “My bank was good, they let me take a withdrawal to get me though but there’s no guarantee a bank will always do that,” said Fox. Dying takes a lot of money. You may have insurance, but it takes a lot of time to get all the paperwork done before money can start flowing back into your operation.”
Fox can’t emphasize enough how important it is for farm women to have their own bank accounts and credit cards. “If you run off of a business account you have to be able to operate that next day and the next month and when those bank accounts are frozen you don’t have anywhere to operate out of,” she said. “And if that happens do not deposit money into that bank account, instead give it to your lawyer because they can take your money in trust and then you can get the money back out. If it goes into the bank account it is frozen until the problem is resolved.”
Life insurance policies are a whole other mountain to tackle, but some planning can make it easier to deal with insurance companies when it comes time to getting payments. Because Jay died in a farm accident and was transferred to several medical facilities before he died, there was a huge amount of paperwork required from each facility. Fox was thankful that she had a good relationship with the family’s doctor, who helped streamline that whole process. “Make sure you have a family doctor and have a good relationship with him or her, or it can take you months and months just to deal with this kind of documentation,” she said.
Also, when it comes to life insurance, don’t undervalue yourself, said Fox. “Women are of equal value on our operations, yet many times when we go to do our insurance policies we put a little extra on the man and a little less on the woman. But don’t undervalue yourself,” she said. “I am almost 100 per cent certain that farm women do this all the time.”
It will take all kinds of money for a male partner to be able to function in the event that he loses his female partner.
“If something had happened to me, Jay would have needed some form of childcare and that was not in the budget,” said Fox. “He would have needed a housekeeper and someone to do the books. All the stuff you are doing on your operation, value that because that it would be a huge gap in your family business that would need to be covered.”
Fox also learned the importance for all key members of the operation to have relationships with all the professionals like lawyers, bankers and accountants.
Fox and her family had a lot of hard decisions to make after Jay passed away and that began with whether they would were staying on the farm. “I had family in Saskatchewan but only Jay’s mom and dad close by,” she said. “Even though the kids were little, I remember sitting around the table and saying, ‘so are we all in or all out?’ and at that point we were all in. So far it’s worked good for us. This is the life I know and love and I wouldn’t have wanted to walk away from that.”
When someone passes away relationships take a new direction, and that can have an effect on decisions or perhaps even the ability of the farm (and family) to function.
“I knew in my heart that Jay’s mom and dad would be there for me and would stand with me and the kids but there was a transition period where nobody knew what we were supposed to do,” said Fox. “There were times when they didn’t know how involved they needed to be or I felt like, where are they, why aren’t they here? I have the best mother and father-in-law ever, but I can’t imagine, if that was a troubled relationship, what that would have been like.”
Ask for help
One of the hardest things, admits Fox, was asking for help. She thought she was doing a good job of getting her life back in order quickly, when all of a sudden, the grief she had been trying to push aside crashed in on her. “Either you grieve now or you grieve later,” she said. “I don’t readily take help, and I know if I had done a better job of taking help right from the beginning I would have healed faster, but I just got busy with my life and eventually it caught up with me and I had to ask for help. It was hard for me but I also realized that people needed to help me as much as I needed the help.”
It’s been hard and has taken Fox a long time to get to the point where she is happy and grateful for each day and can be proud of her many accomplishments. “Gradually, your life changes a bit and you are able to see the joy in what you have been able to accomplish instead of dwelling on all the things you are not going to get done, or the time that you won’t be with the person you have lost,” said Fox, who concluded her presentation with a November 17, 2013 entry from her journal:
“I continue to accomplish my goals and carry on because I know that Jay believes in me. I will not let death steal my joy and I will not give up on my passion for agriculture. I love this life.”