For Chris Ricks and his brother, Jeff, preserving a pristine hunting ranch south of Hayden is proving difficult thanks to Uncle Sam’s estate tax laws.
The brothers, as beneficiaries of the John Ricks Family Trust, are owners of the 4,100-acre R Bar None Ranch that their father, John, bought in 1989 after falling in love with the region. Held under a Conservation Easement that restricts development, it has a 1,200-square-foot hunting cabin and for more than 20 years they’ve leased it to hunters, with an 85 percent success rate. Some hunters have come back for 18 years in a row. Nearly a dozen proud fathers can say they accompanied their son as they took their first elk on the ranch.
Chris and Jeff became owners of the ranch following the passing of their parents John and Beverly, whose ashes are scattered on the property. The problems arose after the market declined. “The government assessed the ranch at the 2008 peak market value and want 45 percent of that figure even though its worth has dropped considerably since then,” he says. “They’re saying, ‘Either give us half of it, or we’ll take it.’”
The problem isn’t unique to the Ricks. High estate taxes have long affected properties passed from generation to generation. When values decrease significantly, as they have in the past four years, the recipients are often left holding a liability instead of a trophy.
“It’s a glaring example of what’s wrong with today’s estate tax,” Ricks says. “It’s a legacy piece of property. We’re trying to hang onto the tradition of this large elk habitat and preserve its open space, but we’re running out of time and can’t do it alone.”
While the laws have changed since then — according to tax attorney Gregg Kampf, the estate tax exemption is now at $5.25 million per person, up from
$2.5 million in 2008 — that does little to help the Ricks. “It can be devastating,” says Kampf, a partner in firm of Hoskin, Farina and Kampf in Grand Junction. “Back then, the market was incredibly high and the exemption rate low, so it’s a double-whammy, especially at a tax rate of 45 percent. The exemption rate has now more than doubled since then. Someone today can pass on a lot more because of higher exemptions and lower values.
“It’s still a problem on huge ranches,” he adds. “If all you have is real estate to pass down and the recipients have to come up with cash for the government, it can be difficult — especially if the property value declines. And these ranches usually offer prime hunting. That’s where all the elk habitat is.”
The choices for the Ricks are simple. Either they sell the property outright and leave the land where their parents’ ashes are scattered or find a third party to come aboard and share their vision for this unique piece of land.
“Big pieces of property like this held in long-standing value are being broken apart,” Ricks says. “It’s causing these legacies and heritages to be shattered. The reason to have properties like this is for legacy and tradition, but unfortunately we’re in this position.”
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