January 1, 2006
Written by Staff at The Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution
Mediating Your Estate May Prove to Strengthen Family Ties
Alvin and Miriam Cole had three children. It was their intent to provide fairly and equally for each child in their will. Equally, however, meant that their youngest son’s share needed to be reduced by the amount of a loan they had made to him to start a business. The business had failed and their money was lost. Good and loving parents as they were, they chose to overlook the debt. While they would have liked to see their son make some effort to repay the debt, they said nothing, until they drafted their wills and trusts. Even then they chose not to confront the issue not to tell their son, Tom, that they were deducting the amount of his debt from his share of their estate. Instead they simply stated in the trust documents that each of the other two children, Rosalie and Peter, were to receive $200,000.00 each prior to the equal division of the estate among the three children. No explanation, just the deductions.
When Alvin died, there was no reading of the will and no estate settlement, after all, everything went to Miriam; and she was alive and well. It was not until eight years later when Miriam died that Tom learned that he was receiving less than his two siblings. He asked his brother and sister to admit that the whole thing was a mistake; after all, he did not owe anything. They said their mother and father drafted the trust documents and the documents spoke for their parents. Tom elected to sue.
Cynthia and Jon Thomas had 4 children. Their oldest son, Michael, was an accountant. They, as financially prudent people, chose to name Michael as executor of their estate. When both parents died, Michael claimed that each of his 3 siblings had borrowed from their parents and now owed like sums to the estate. He produced lists of monies owed. His siblings reacted with anger. Mom had forgiven those debts; they were old pieces of paper. “Divide the estate,” they demanded. Michael not only refused to divide the estate; he also refused to release any documents on the amount of the estate or even on verification of the so-called debts. The siblings elected to sue.
Bob and Carol Olin had a sizeable estate and 6 children between them from prior marriages. It seemed to be an overwhelming task when there were so many possessions to be divided. They wanted to be very methodical; to be clear about exactly what each child would receive upon their deaths. Their challenge was how to clarify so many things. Money and holdings were easy. The “stuff” was the hard part. The Olins elected to determine the division with their children. The idea sounded so democratic. The result was bitter and unpredictable. After three years of wrangling, they gave up. Everything would be sold and the moneys split—so much for sentiment.
All of the above examples are real life illustrations. They are not happy stories with happy endings. Estate divisions are often bitter and difficult. The mourning takes back stage as the siblings or their heirs squabble about their piece of the pie. Some families confront them before death for better or worse. Others let things fall where they may, after they die. Few anticipate or could even contemplate, the anger and hard feelings that are engendered by their “leavings.” How ironic that gifts could become a source of pain and conflict.
Of late we, at CMDR, have noticed an increase in the number of families who choose to deal with estate issues through mediation. These families want to preserve the bonds between them, but do not seem to be able to resolve the issues without assistance. All the old triggers and memories return, impeding their ability to sit down and settle. Mediation offers a vehicle for identifying the issues and sorting through the problems in a constructive setting. With mediation, family members have the opportunity to resolve their differences without destroying family ties. Indeed, the process, in and of itself, often strengthens ties between family members, bringing them closer together with a new appreciation for each others’ feelings and concerns.
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