My professional life has involved any number of painful family disputes.  The two most common are: step-mother disputes and sibling disputes.  The former tend to be probate disputes and the latter can be probate or trust disputes.  This blog deals with step-mother disputes, the next will deal with sibling disputes.

The stepmother dispute is a function of the way our social and economic structures have evolved in the 21st century.  People live longer, marriages which in the 20th century had to last 30 – 40 years, ended by wars/early death from diseases avoidable now, go on for 60 years.  Divorce was socially unacceptable for most of the last century.  Property values have rocketed. Now, second marriages are common, and second wives are frequently younger than their husbands.  When the second wives are near contemporaries of their husband’s children problems arise on the death of the patriarch and the interests of the two sides are quite often irreconcilable.  The only link is gone exposing layers of resentment which may have bubbled below the surface for years. 

I have acted as a solicitor on both sides of those disputes and mediated both.  Adult children can have a sense of entitlement to family money and a feeling of betrayal if the money is left to a widow.  In this jurisdiction we have testamentary freedom and, provided a testator has capacity and has not failed to provide for a dependant such that a claim can be made under the 1975 Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act, the testator can leave his money to the Cats’ home or more likely to his widow hoping that she will “do the right thing”.  Sometimes the disputes involve family chattels, possibly belonging to much loved first wives/mothers.  The adult children I see, particularly the less successful children of very successful men are bitter at what they see as a disinheritance or betrayal.

The wicked stepmother is an archetype and hardwired into our psyche.  Those widows may have had relatively few years of happiness with their spouses, followed by years of cantankerous infirmity, possibly dementia, sometimes alcohol induced, with few visits or support from the aforementioned children.  When the old man dies, the widows may or may not have their own children, and depending on how the estate has been left may be confronting a lonely and possibly impoverished old age.  Quite often it is clear that the deceased ducked dealing with an issue he could not resolve: his love for his wife who has cared for him in old age and his love for his children.  This creates anger on both sides.

There are however ways to resolve these disputes.  Sometimes it involves forgiveness for past transgressions or at least putting them to one side.  Tax can be a driver to settle the disputes.  Death and taxes are the two certainties, and a third is that no matter how much the parties might hate each other, they almost certainly hate the Revenue more.  Unlike a divorce, there is no need for the parties to continue the relationship for the sake of the children; they just need to work out a way to carve up the estate and to recognise that the relationship and thus the dispute has been imposed on them and bitterness and paying the lawyers a lot of money will not necessarily resolve it.  That is where mediation comes in and can prove successful.

Alison Meek, LCAM Mediator and Partner, Sinclair Gibson LLP