This article is fiction but it reflects what happens often in probate disputes and the wrecking effect it can have on family relationships.
Julie and Millie are first cousins and have always been very close. They both dearly love their Aunt Harriett who has fondly told the girls she would leave everything to them equally as she has no children. About 6 months ago, Millie moves house to be closer to 87-year-old Aunt Harriett who is by now quite frail. Since then Millie appears to have taken over Aunt Harriett’s finances and it seems that during that time Aunt Harriett made a new Will leaving most of her estate to Millie. Julie feels that something funny has been going on especially since Aunt Harriett was almost going senile before she died. Millie must have manipulated Aunt Harriett into leaving almost everything to her, Julie fumes. Julie is not prepared to let things go. It is not a large inheritance but she feels that as a matter of principle she has to make a claim for what is fair and rightfully hers – even at the cost of her relationship with her cousin Millie.
Julie has her day in court but it doesn’t work out quite as she expected. She gets her victory, but on this occasion, victory isn’t quite so sweet. Because of some quirk in the rules of procedure the judge has said that she must pay her own legal fees even though she won. She is awarded half of the estate but by the time she’s settled the legal fees the inheritance has whittled down to nothing. By that time she’s not speaking to Millie who feels that the kinds of questions she was subjected to in court were humiliating. She’s never going to forgive Julie and they are no longer on speaking terms. Even their children who used to be best of friends are no longer allowed to visit each other’s homes. Julie has told Millie that she is no longer going to be godmother to Julie’s new baby. Even Aunt Marge, Harriett’s sister has been dragged into the dispute at a time when she is grieving for her sister. She has been forced to take sides. As her 80th birthday looms she is unsure who she should invite – Julie or Millie. They have both made it clear that she must choose as they cannot both be there. The situation is unbearable and there is tension at every family gathering as family members discuss the rights and wrongs of what is happening.
What could they have done differently? It’s a shame that very often parties in such situations do not explore mediation. So what could have happened if they had gone to mediation? The scenario might have gone something like this.
Julie has decided to pursue a claim but fortunately, a friend who knew about the benefits of mediation recommended they try it. Julie and Millie, who have not been speaking since Julie decided she would pursue a claim, meet for the first time at the mediation.
Once things get underway, they get to hear how each other feel about the situation. For the first time, Millie hears how Julie is feeling. She now knows that Julie feels guilty for not having been close to Aunt Harriett in her declining months. She feels she should have done more. She is also hurt and blames Millie for taking over and shutting her out. Julie also gets to hear Millie’s feelings about the issue. Millie thought that she was helping Julie out by taking over because she thought Julie would be pre-occupied with the new baby she’s expecting particularly as it has been a difficult pregnancy. She thought it would be too much for Julie to deal with taking care of Aunt Harriett’s affairs as well.
After they both hear each other out they realise how much they’ve misunderstood each other. Millie is very happy for Julie to have half the estate and that was what she wanted to suggest before Julie brought up the subject of litigation. Julie decides that as Millie did more for their Aunt in the final months of her life that she should get more than half. They finally settle on 55% for Millie and 45% for Julie. Having agreed on the settlement, they spend the next hour catching up on family news. Neither has seen the other’s children since all this began. They agree on the date for the christening of Julie’s new baby and are still chatting when they leave together in the same taxi for Julie’s house.
Of course, it doesn’t always end happily ever after, but it is obvious that mediation can achieve so much more for the parties in this situation. It allows them to have the opportunity, probably for the first time, to understand the other’s feelings about what is going on. It is never all about money alone – emotions are always wrapped up in it. Getting to the bottom of what is driving the parties is crucial to resolving the dispute and allowing the parties to move forward with some level of a co-operative alliance.
Although mediation does not guarantee an amicable resolution, there is a much better chance of the parties walking away with a resolution they can live with and can be more hopeful of ending up in a better position to rebuild fractured relationships.
If you are involved in a dispute over a will or other probate issue and you are worried about the effect on family relations, get in touch to find out if mediation could help resolve the conflict.