Family disputes the right way – there’s more than meets the eye

There’s always more to a dispute over family money than meets the eye. That’s an important reason mediation is the right way to solve a family dispute.

Sam and Charlie, not real clients, brother and sister, from a moderately wealthy family. Happy childhood. Now in their late forties.

They’ve owned an investment property together for 15 years. Charlie has managed it. In the early days, chaotically and he had refused to spend money on some fire safety work. Sam had had to step in and get the work done.

Last year, their mother died and her will favored Sam over Charlie. This really upset Charlie because he had known about a previous will that shared the estate equally between them. Charlie’s view was that the last will was made when their mother had dementia and so wasn’t probably valid.

Charlie had tried to talk to Sam. But it was difficult. The conversation was about the estate. It felt like progress could only be made if one of them gave ground. And that felt like losing.

They turned to prefix to help them resolve the problem because they didn’t want it to turn into a legal case.

Two things emerged in our discussions with them.

Charlie was really upset by Sam’s hostility and uncooperativeness. He didn’t understand why she wasn’t prepared to give some ground to him. They were brother and sister after all.

Sam was in her last year as senior partner and was hoping to wind down and maybe even retire early. Ever since the incident, Sam worried about the property. And now the problem with the will, everything seemed more complicated than ever. It was hard not to blame Charlie.

As mediators, we encourage people to say what’s bothering them. They’re certainly not limited to things that are relevant to a legal case.

Charlie knew that the property incident had upset Sam but he completely underestimated how much and he was very surprised to hear that the property still worried her.

Sam told Charlie that she had hoped to retire early but that if she gave ground on the will she’d have to carry on working. She thought she knew that Charlie wanted them to hold onto the property.

Charlie didn’t know any of this. He thought she wanted to be senior partner for ever and that Sam felt under some duty to their parents to hold onto the property for the next generation.

The conversation that had been so difficult about the will completely changed when they realized that they both wanted to sell the property.

No longer was the discussion about who got more from the estate. It became out how to get best value for the property and to administer the estate efficiently. In the end they agreed that the last will would be followed and that Charlie would receive a generous management fee for the last year.

When this was a black and white argument about the will, they were at loggerheads. The freedom they had in a mediation to say what really mattered to them opened the possibility of broadening the conversation and expanding the pie. Once expanded, a problem that looks stuck became much easier for them to solve.

Jeremy Ellis. A mediator and lawyer with prefix mediation. We help families solve problems before they become legal cases.