Costello, Carlson & Butzon helps families plan farm succession
“Correctly planned, the new generation has a better chance of success and getting along.”
LAKEFIELD — Though many farmers hope to pass their land onto the next generation, doing so isn’t always as simple as handing over the keys to the tractor and riding off into the sunset. It takes planning, legal strategy and experience — and that’s what Costello, Carlson & Butzon bring to the table, as probate lawyers who administrate estates.
“It is fun and interesting work,” said Patrick Costello, who graduated from Hamlin University in 1974 and Creighton University School of Law in 1977. The firm has two offices, with one in Lakefield and the other in Jackson.
People want things to be simple, Costello said, and they also want a lack of friction between family members.
“My experiences have taught me how to structure farm asset ownership so the family can pass the farm on to the next generation without or with the minimal estate tax,” he explained. “Correctly planned, the new generation has a better chance of success and getting along.”
Often, that involves steering people through co-ownership of a house or farm owned along with one’s siblings, nieces or nephews.
“There’s solutions,” Costello said. “They come down very often to practicality, ties and experience. It’s the art of getting people through co-ownership.”
Sometimes it simply comes down to timing, particularly since inheritance often involves grief, loss and relationships, all of which change based on time.
“I think people don’t want it complicated. There’s many complex solutions, involving entities and trusts or the desire to have it in perpetuity,” Costello said.
He praised his clients for being organized, planning and doing their best to follow the rules and be responsible.
That works best “when the architecture is in place so it can be administered and distributed in a way that fits the circumstances of the family,” Costello said.
The firm is the eighth oldest in Minnesota, tracing back to W.A. Funk, who started a practice in Lakefield in 1887. Currently, it includes Hans Carlson, a graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, who joined in 1980, and Chris Butzon, a Creighton graduate who joined in 1995.
The business began as a general law firm, but during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, Costello, Carlson & Butzon started specializing in agricultural law.
“I was 30 years old and I was representing banks and debtors,” Costello recalled. “Debtors and banks didn’t know where to turn.”
It was a difficult time. The self-blame was overwhelming, and Costello himself dealt with something like 150 debtor cases in a wide area, much wider than the firm usually reached. It wore him down though he still soldiered on, knowing the situation wouldn’t change for a while.
Throughout all of it, good times and bad, the lawyers stayed involved in their communities, joining organizations for corn and soybean growers, as well as those for people producing pork, sheep, cattle and wool, Costello said. They join commercial clubs as well as service organizations and sports leagues.
“We volunteer at schools, give speeches at commemorations, teach adult extension classes and perform our civic duties,” he added. “We are active in our churches, attend local sporting and cultural events, contribute to charities and fund drives, and serve on government boards.”
Those activities are particularly important in a small town, Costello said.
His membership in the American Agricultural Law Association extends back to those Farm Crisis years, when graduates from the land grant colleges would come together to discuss their profession, and that’s his favorite professional organization. He’s also part of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, who must be nominated and elected in order to join. Costello attributed his election to his expertise in farm succession planning.
Costello received a Minnesota State Bar Association Lifetime Achievement award in 2019.
“Pat has volunteered for almost every community betterment organization or cause that has existed in his hometown of Lakefield,” wrote David Stowman in Costello’s nomination letter for the award. “His activities range from serving all the churches, Boy Scouts, Kiwanis, 4-H, historical society, food shelf, political parties, blood drives, fundraisers and on and on. He is the City Attorney, sexton of the cemetery and a trustee for several foundations. His contributions to the community are immeasurable. He loves his little town.”