When I tell people that I am a mediator, and that part of my practice focuses on family law issues, the comments that follow are almost always related to divorce, support, and child custody issues. However, I am quick to point out that “Family Law” covers much broader areas of concern – including such difficult situations as disputes in family owned businesses, issues surrounding estate division, and issues involving elder care.
Elder care and estate division, while not new issues, have been garnering more coverage recently in the news and attention in the public eye. This may be a result of our population aging, or that the baby-boom generation is now providing care for their parents who are living longer than generations before them. Whatever the reason, issues of how to provide care for the elderly - and what effect that care provision may have on the division of assets in a parent or loved one’s estate - are giving rise to more disputes that, unfortunately for the families involved, often end up in court.
A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled a family facing these questions. The article by Anne Tergesen, “A Referee for Family Disputes,” (available for review on line at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704124504576118051771121770.html) uses an example from a family in California who hired a mediator to help a 60 year old woman and her three siblings divide land owned by their 90 year old mother – land that had been in their family for many years. Polly Osborne, the family member interviewed for the article, stated, “We went from not knowing what to do to agreeing on virtually everything or compromising happily.” Ms. Osborne went on to note that she and her siblings were incorporating the agreement reached in mediation into their own estate planning.
An article in The Buffalo News entitled “Mending Fences, With a Mediator,” authored by Emma Sapong and Sandra G. Boodman (available for review on line at: http://www.buffalonews.com/business/moneysmart/article333623.ece ) demonstrates another situation. The article tells the story of a family fighting in court over the division of their father’s estate. One child had provided more “hands-on” care and took possession of many of the assets after the father’s passing. Three other siblings felt that was unfair. As the family was feuding and incurring expenses to fight amongst themselves, they turned to a mediator. The mediator who helped them resolve the dispute shared this, “They got to express the hurt and they were addressed effectively and they understood where the other was coming from. And by the last session, they focused on what was really important and honored their father by working through a resolution that was respectful and accommodating for all parties.” And, the article pointed out, the family spent less than $2,000.00 on the mediation – making the process not only productive, but also cost effective.
The key to these stories is that these families were able, with the assistance of a mediator, to preserve their relationships, save assets, and avoid courtroom drama that would have taken both a large financial and emotional toll on the families. Other examples of disputes where a mediator can assist a family outside of the traditional divorce spectrum include: helping family members decide how to assist the elderly with managing their financial affairs; dividing up responsibility for the provision of personal care; and even issues surrounding how health care decisions should be made. Mediation is very often the most inexpensive and productive solution facing families struggling with disputes that could otherwise tear the family apart.