Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Livestock Brands as part of an estate plan

When we think about succession or estate planning, it might be family heirlooms that come to mind. 
Who's wearing your brand?  Reviewing brand ownership
is an important part of an estate plan.  Photo by Kari Lewis.
However, livestock owners also should consider Montana brand ownership laws as they pertain to estate planning.  MSU Extension has a great MontGuide resource, available free online or from your local extension office, ‘Livestock Brands in Montana: An Important Componentof an Estate Plan’ from which this information comes.

One scenario in the MontGuide relates to the Rocking R brand which has been a family brand for 50 years.  In 2014, after John’s marriage to his second wife, Kathy, he added her as co-owner of the brand.  John’s son, Rob, is actively engaged in the ranch and thus in John’s will, he stated the Rocking R brand was to go to his son, Rob.  However, upon John’s death, a dispute arose between Rob and John’s wife, Kathy, as to who was the rightful owner of the brand and the livestock bearing that brand.  Was it Kathy, listed as co-owner on the Brand Assignment form?  Or was it Rob, who was listed specifically in John’s will? 
Upon an owner’s death, who inherits the brand and who inherits the livestock bearing the brand is determined by information provided on the Application for Brand Recording form, Montana brand laws and regulations, decisions issued by the Montana Supreme Court interpreting and applying the brand laws and regulations and the Montana Uniform Probate Code.  Upon the death of a brand owner, a key factor in determining who receives the brand and the livestock bearing the brand depends upon if the brand is recorded as sole ownership, joint tenancy, tenants in common, in the name of a business entity, or in the name of an estate or trust. 

In the scenario of the Rocking R brand we started out with, John’s wife Kathy and son, Rob, both believed they were rightful owners of the brand and cattle and hired attorneys to defend their position in court.  Based on the Application for Brand Recording form on which John designated “joint tenancy” as the form of ownership between himself and wife, Kathy, the judge ruled Kathy owned the brand and the livestock on which it appears.  John’s decision to add his spouse as a joint tenant had unintended consequences which resulted in a significant and costly family disagreement between his wife and his son.  This could have been prevented by a premarital agreement between John and Kathy, conferring with professional estate planning advisors, recording the brand in joint tenancy with son Rob, or keeping the brand in sole ownership of John. 

If you are a brand owner, here are four questions you should know the answer to:
1.       Who are the owners of your brands?
2.       If the brand is owned by more than one person, are the co-owner’s joint tenants with right of survivorship or tenants in common?  The use of the words ‘and’ or ‘or’ here are key.
3.       Whom do you want to own the brand upon your death?
4.       When you transfer a brand by gift or will, do you want to distinguish between ownership of the brand and ownership of the livestock bearing the brand?  If so, you will need to make your intent clear and likely should seek the advice of an attorney.

For more information on this topic of livestock brands as part of an estate plan, check out the MontGuide publication.