There are a variety of situations in which a spouse, family member or other beneficiary might become in a probate dispute. While good estate planning can prevent many family conflicts, it’s not uncommon for an excluded beneficiary to dispute a will or estate plan. Your dying loved one might have been under undue influence from a friend or caregiver when they made decisions about who would receive their estate. They might not have been mentally competent when they revised their will. They might have had multiple wills — or no will at all.
With money, cherished property, or fairness at stake, families who might otherwise get along can find themselves on opposite sides of a courtroom. Children from different stages in the decedent’s life might find themselves treated differently. There may be very good reasons to challenge a will or estate plan.
Unfortunately, going to court will probably be financially costly and public. If there’s any publicity — even among family friends — it can serve to cement each party’s position, making it hard to compromise. The probate court may not have the power to grant you what you want; remedies are limited to what the law allows. Plus, litigation isn’t known for its healing properties.
You may think you have to choose between costly, miserable courtroom litigation and simply giving up. You do not. Have you considered mediation?
Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution that allows all the parties to develop a workable settlement of the issues, which you then present to the judge for finalization. A mediator is a neutral third party who is there to help you communicate effectively and work out your own resolution.
One of the many benefits of mediation in probate and other family property disputes is its flexibility. Unlike in court, where the available remedies are limited, in mediation the parties can come up with any resolution they can imagine, as long as it is legally enforceable. This allows for creative solutions like an agreement to share a cherished heirloom, or the transfer of some funds to a deserving person who was accidentally left out of the will or trust.
Perhaps the most important benefit, however, is the chance that mediation could help you reconcile your differences and save long-term relationships from deterioration. You don’t want a probate dispute to define your relationship with your family, but a courtroom is a confrontation between adversaries. Mediation lets everyone have a seat at the table — and everyone gets a say in the outcome.