Editor’s Note: This short article is Part 2 of a two-part series. At the end of this segment, you’ll find several really helpful, free tools to use right away – to help calm and resolve family conflicts over a loved one’s care, or disputes over a will or trust. I know you’ll love these valuable tools – you and your family deserve peace in challenging moments! If you missed Part 1, click here to read How Family Conflict Can Make or Break Your Personal Legacy …
When a loved one can no longer live unassisted, it creates a great deal of stress on families. You’re rowing into unchartered territory. Your family members will no doubt react to the stress in different ways.
Acknowledging this is key to overcoming conflict. The idea that “we get what we focus on” holds very true in conflict situations. If you and your family members decide to come closer together through the conflict, you will. When you and your family members focus on increasing communication through conflict, you’ll get an awesome result.
Here are four ways to handle the conflicts that arise when an elder family member is ill, infirm, or has died leaving some kind of dispute around the distribution of their estate:
1. The Family Meeting
Who are the key family members able to contribute in a positive way to the situation to help handle it or resolve it? They need to be a part of this meeting.
Maybe mother is in the early to mid-stages of dementia and she needs help every day. Who has been helping her? Is there one family member who has been doing the lion’s share? That person needs to be there, along with others who should also be contributing.
Perhaps mom needs to be moved to a place where there is professional assistance. Is that the reality, but no one has wanted to talk about the logistics and the cost? The key players should be at this meeting.
Don’t make the meeting too big. Perhaps just the adult children/siblings. There is probably no need to include grandkids, aunts, uncles, etc. Too many members make for an unproductive meeting.
A family meeting early in the process with frequent follow-ups can be key to heading off big conflicts and hard feelings as an elder’s physical condition deteriorates, and the earlier you call the family meeting, the better. Go in with a short but on-point agenda, like:
- What do we see as mom’s current condition and what are her needs for care?
- Who has been spending the most time with her and what do you see that we don’t? (Be sure to acknowledge and thank a family member who has taken on the caretaker role more than others.)
- What kind of care does mom need now and in the foreseeable future to be as healthy and happy as she can be?
- What would mom have wanted if she were able to tell us freely?
- How much would mom’s ultimate care cost and what resources are available?
- What as a family are we able to do to collectively care for mom?
- How can we all share in the work to ensure mom’s dignity and legacy remain intact as she lives her final days?
- What do we need to do to ensure that we don’t put all the work onto only one of us?
- How do we prevent burnout of one of our members?
These are important questions to ask, and the goal is to get agreement on the going-forward plan and division of duties (personal care, overseeing financials, paying mom’s bills, caring for her home and pets, etc.) Family meetings on a regular basis are a good way to ensure the workload is shared and adjusted as needed, so no one family member feels like they are carrying all of the weight.
If the family issues arising after the death of a loved one are on the table, like the distribution of an estate, these are issues to be discussed with great sensitivity. Asking the questions upfront about what the deceased elder really cared about and what was the legacy they wanted to leave are important because they get the focus off the individuals remaining and onto the subject of honoring the elder’s wishes.
Of course, those touchy issues of messaging, self-worth, and (oh yes!) entitlement of those who may have been “cut out” must be acknowledged. Often it’s better to get to a facilitator or mediator right away in these situations.
2. Short-Term Group Therapy
In the beginning stages of an elder’s physical decline, family members all experience denial, acceptance, and grief differently. If there are two or three siblings, for example, trying to figure out how to care for their declining parent, a group visit of the siblings to a skilled therapist can work wonders.
That is a place where each family member’s feelings can be expressed in a productive environment. A good therapist can offer coping and relating tools so the group of siblings/family members can best work through the situation in a way that is supportive, not combative. Therapy at the beginning, middle, and end of an elder member’s crisis is very helpful to keep the family members mentally healthy and drive them closer together rather than apart.
3. Engaging a Pro Part A: The Facilitated Meeting
Often, one or more family members have such a difficult time relating in the midst of emotional conflict that a self-led family meeting is nearly impossible. Some family units simply have no leader personalities able to host an effective family meeting. That’s where a professional facilitator can make all the difference.
One of our biggest joys as family and estate planning attorneys is when we get to help families and others conduct facilitated meetings. We have extensive experience negotiating and mediating difficult issues. In a facilitated meeting, we are able to guide the conversation by crafting an agenda for the conversation ahead of time. We move the family through the relevant and most important issues to be discussed, ensuring each member can provide input in a way that is meaningful and comfortable for them, and aiding the group in formulating options and solutions to each issue. Then the facilitated discussion becomes focused on agreement and an action plan, identifying what each family member is going to do next to contribute to the group effort in caring for the ailing elder.
4. Engaging a Pro Part B: Formal Settlement Negotiations
When family disputes escalate to the point of serious family division and legal claims, it’s time to call in experienced, compassionate attorneys who have great settlement records. When we negotiate for clients, we also bring with us our over 30 years’ of mediation experience (yes, I’ve professionally mediated hundreds of cases and that skills works heavily in favor of our law clients).
In productive negotiations, we stay away from non-productive, judgmental statements. We avoid telling family members who is wrong or right. Instead, as settlement pro’s, we bring our high-level skills to the table to examine the conflict, identify the key issues to be resolved, lead the discussion, brainstorm solutions, and help the family come to agreement and a “moving forward” plan.
What scenarios are ripe for professional settlement negotiations?
Frequently, settlement discussions in a professional setting can be very helpful when a will and/or a trust is being questioned by family members and a contested probate case has been initiated in the court (or is about to kick off).
Or perhaps a sibling has moved an ailing parent into their home, and over the course of a few years has remodeled their home to add on extra rooms for the parent, using the parent’s savings or retirement to pay for the improvements. We see that scenario often. In that situation, it’s quite common for the rest of the family to start questioning the use of those monies.
Another situation is where a parent needs to be aided into an assisted living facility, but the family is sharply divided over the issue. Frequently, major resentment arises between the siblings giving day-to-day care for the parent and those who seemingly won’t lift a finger (or maybe the others are handling the “business side” of the elder’s care and object to the move because of money concerns).
These are the times to run—not walk—to a skilled negotiator to help address the issues and get a legal agreement in place to resolve the disagreements. And in settlement meetings, particularly in these emotionally and financially challenging family disputes, you and your family may need to meet for several brief follow-up settlement discussions to help the family through future group decisions as the elder member’s needs change or increase.
What about when there’s the real threat of a lawsuit, or where a family member has already filed suit against another? Lawyers aren’t just for court-room battles. Great lawyers are very helpful in face to face settlement discussions. You want them to participate in the settlement process – this is a good thing…attorneys are very helpful to their clients as the negotiations proceed.
If this is where you are in the midst of your family dispute, talk to your attorney about the settlement conference option. Nipping a dispute in the bud through face to face settlement conferences is always a very wise choice. Here’s why:
- In settlement, you have the most control over the outcome of the dispute because in settlement discussions, every kind of creative option can be explored.
- With a talented attorney-negotiator (like yours truly…but I digress…) the needs of all the parties can be addressed and satisfied through a creatively and carefully-designed agreement.
- And then there’s the very key aspect of settlement that brings dignity and a calming effect that court litigation does not:
- Settlement conferences are done privately, confidentially, and quickly in an attorney’s office. The settlement experience (with a top-notch negotiator) can be an enjoyable and productive experience.
In settlement conferences conducted at my office, our clients arrive to a very private, warm and elegant environment. Imagine being met by our calm, friendly assistants. Imagine being settled into beautiful, comfortable rooms where you can gather your thoughts, talk with your lawyer, spouse or support person while relaxing with a refreshment or cup of coffee before the settlement conference begins, and during the conference when private meetings with your attorney are underway.
We take great pride in providing a “spa-like” settlement conference experience, where you feel safe and comfortable. Settlement conferences should be in a place where you are able to focus on the hard task of working through a problem in the safety and serenity of a place where the only focus of the attorneys is aiding the family to a positive outcome.
What does the court alternative look like?
- Traditional court means sitting in the cold hallways of the court with the public milling about.
- It means sitting in a public courtroom and having the private details of your life being discussed for all to hear (with a court reporter taking down every word – making your private life a public record).
- The traditional court route means you are letting a government judge decide what’s best for your family.
- Traditional court also comes with a price tag of 70-80% more in attorney’s fees and costs than the cost of early settlement.
- And then there’s the time spent wrestling with the conflict: Traditional court means an average of 12 to 24 months to get your government judge to make a final decision.
Settlement Conferences are the no-brainer answer!
“FAMILY IS FOREVER”
That’s an interesting saying, but it’s true. Your family is a defined group that will still be family even if you’re not speaking to each other.
Families often allow conflict to break them apart permanently. Ask any person who’s been through a family dispute (most of us have, at some level). They’ll tell you with great recall all the gory details. That’s because family disputes hit us at our very core, and the sad memories of unresolved and poorly handled family conflict stay with us forever.
But the good news is that when we make a decision, with great resolve, to come closer as a family through conflict, our family relationships are stronger, we feel more supported, and we’re happier. More importantly, our own legacies and those of our elders are positive and meaningful. We bring dignity to our elders and honor their legacies.
The choice is yours. What legacy do you choose today, for you and your forever family?
Bonus Tools to Help!
Want to be the peacemaker—the initiator of resolving the family conflict? Sometimes it’s as easy as a humble invitation to the rest of the family.
Don’t know how or where to start? We can help with this spot-on resource:
Invitation to a Family Discussion, Facilitated Meeting, or Family Settlement Conference
This tool is called “An Invitation to Heal Our Family.” We provide you with two sample letters:
The first invites your family members to an informal family meeting to discuss a loved one’s needs for increased care and family assistance.
The second is an invitation for the family to participate in a facilitated meeting or a settlement conference. You can use these samples as-is, or modify to make it your own.
However you choose to use these resources, peace and reconciliation are just an email away! Get your free “Invitation to Heal Our Family ” script set here.
Please share your thoughts or how you’ve addressed family conflict issues below. I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Blessings and peace to you and your family, as you courageously build your legacy.