Requiem for the Farm

Two months ago, or thereabouts, on March 27, 2024, my father signed over title to a large portion of the family farm to the two pastors of his local church. The transfer of ownership was quite unexpected and was not disclosed—to my sister—until after he died on April 16. We all understood that he intended to will the property to the couple, but his estate would pass through the typical legal process first.

Since my grandfather’s will hadn’t been probated, the older document might supersede the other—something I presumed a lawyer and judge would sort out. That process would be opportunity to also open a discussion with the pastors about final disposition of the approximately 100 acres. The unexpected transaction nullified everything—unless the older will is legally enforceable. I wouldn’t know.

Rights versus What’s Right
From my perspective, as a matter of morality, my father stole the family land over which he held title—about 7/12ths. In 1988, one of his sisters signed over her quarter of the property and another a portion thereof. They did so at his behest and in trust. Their oldest brother had just died, and his second wife inherited the quarter belonging to him. My father despised my step-aunt and sought to forestall any claim she might exert over the property. For the record, she posed no threat and instead turned over ownership to one of my cousins; in 2023.

Legally, my father owned his portion and what he received from my aunts. But the law isn’t the only consideration. He was dying. Both sisters still live, and that farm is partly their inheritance, which he gave away without consulting them and therefore gaining their permission. He obtained the property rights in trust for the purpose of keeping the farm intact and in the family. He accomplished neither.

One of my uncle’s children holds legitimate title to the other 5/12ths. My dutiful cousin visited my father during the waning days of his life, when he demanded the surrender of ownership so that the pastors would receive the entire property. Say, what? Request refused.

Good Faith?
Presumably, he acted willfully by removing the farm from the whiles of probate. But that raises the question: Why did the pastors accept the property? Putting myself in their position, if a relative stepped forward—and my cousin most certainly asked about living somewhere on the property and raising animals—I would have declined and told the man to keep the place in the family. Something else: My sister communicated last year that my father planned to change his will and leave his portion of the farm to me; I expressed willingness, pledging to trustworthily keep it for the family. Our father made an appointment with a lawyer but cancelled after talking to the pastors. I don’t know whether or not he disclosed his intentions to them.

On June 7, 2024, I texted (names changed):

Hi, Pastor Pete. Joe Wilcox’s son texting. I wondered if we could chat on the phone sometime soon. I have a couple questions about the family farm. Its disposition is the top topic among his kids, nephew, and niece. I’ll start with a question for the phone call: Did my father ever explain why he wouldn’t leave the portion of the property over which he had title to family? I look forward to talking to you soon.

He didn’t respond, although he contacted my sister, who was in Maine at the time, about my outreach. My sister says he said he would “pray about it”. I guess God told him to ignore me.

On June 19, I texted a second time (again, names changed):

Hello, Pastor Pete, Joe Wilcox’s son, once more. I reach out to get clarification about the farm, what my father told you about why he chose to surrender the portion that he controlled to you and Pastor Polly. The transfer of title surprised us all, particularly after my cousin Terry had stepped forward. I haven’t called, recognizing that you work a full-time job and manage a congregation. But some response from you, even acknowledgement that you received this text, would be appreciated.

He hasn’t responded.

I could call but my initial intent was simple information-gathering—although the use of surrender in the second message was a deliberate jab that I hoped might ruffle feathers.

Appearances Matter
I don’t know these people. I met them once for a car ride from the airport in Presque Isle, Maine to Washburn. But I do know what the appearance of impropriety looks like. My father was a member of their congregation and, therefore, from a relational power perspective, was in an objective position to them. They cared for him during the final days of his life—when declining health and morphine consumption arguably could make him susceptible to suggestion or to being mentally impaired. Returning to power imbalance: My father was nearly 100-percent dependent on this husband and wife during the final 40 days of his life; he returned home, where the pastors stayed with him 24/7.

Did they unduly influence him, or take advantage of his impairment? (Or visa versa,  he being so notoriously controlling?) I wouldn’t know, and I make no accusation. However, the appearance of such possibility on their part would be reason enough for them to say no to accepting the Quickclaim deed and instead obtain the property through inheritance during the probate process. Because someone looking at the situation from the outside might wonder. More importantly, anyone with any position of authority—particularly pastors at a time when there is open government hostility to Christian churches—should avoid engaging in relationships or transactions that might lead to law enforcement banging on their door in the middle of the night.

To reiterate: I do not allege legal wrongdoing on the part of the pastors. I don’t have enough information to determine anything. I do question their judgment, which includes ignoring the son of the man they called “Dad”.

Simply Shameful
But I most absolutely accuse my father of cheating his sisters out of their inheritance. Had I known his intentions, before or after the transaction, I would have had a long, strong conversation with him. He needed correction from someone, even if not accepted. Instead, I let too much go for too long because he was dying.

My aunts deserved something from their inheritance. For reasons left unsaid for the moment, he vindictively betrayed them, my cousin, and his ancestors. I personally don’t feel slighted. My father and I shared too little in common, and he stopped treating me like a son decades ago. I’m good with that. But for the sake of others, I am peeved and ashamed of his final, apparently, willful act.

My oldest cousin used Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780 to capture the Featured Image on June 3, 2012. Vitals: f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/30 sec, 5.8mm; 1:22 p.m. EDT.

Photo Credit: Dan Wilcox