A Disputed Inheritance
Following the death of their mother, Emily and Elizabeth stood to inherit her estate in equal shares, as set out in her will. Their mother had been a well respected member of the community, chair of a local charity and a GP. On the announcement of the mother’s death, a solicitor representing a third daughter launched a contested probate action, on the grounds of inheritance. The third daughter (Anne – 17 years of age), who was unknown to the sisters, was born following their mother’s affair with another man, whilst their father was still alive. The mother had kept in touch with Anne and paid substantial amounts towards her maintenance. Emily and Elizabeth were horrified to find that they had an unknown sibling, born out of wedlock, wanting to prevent them from having their rightful share of their mother’s inheritance, and instructed a solicitor to fight the claim. A trial date was set and both parties prepared themselves for a long, acrimonious and potentially expensive legal action.
In discussion with their solicitor, Emily and Elizabeth raised their concerns regarding sensitive details of their mother’s private life becoming public, given her highly respected position and national profile. In addition, they feared substantial costs, which were already beginning to mount, associated with losing a probate action. Although their court was less than three weeks away, their solicitor recommended mediation as a possible solution to the dispute. Anne agreed to the offer of mediation and a joint meeting was rapidly set up.
During the mediation meeting, which lasted several hours, the mediator encouraged discussion about the facts of the case and the emotions that had been brought to the surface by the dispute. Emily and Elizabeth began by accusing Anne of being an opportunist, seeking to steal a share of their mother’s estate that was not rightfully hers. They had made considerable sacrifice in caring for their mother, who had suffered from Dementia in her later years. Anne explained that following her birth, she had been sent away and raised by her father and his wife, as her mother feared an illegitimate child would damage her career. In addition, their mother had secured Anne’s silence (and the silence of the father’s family) with maintenance payments and a promise that she would benefit from her will. In common with her mother, Anne was hoping to become a doctor and needed financial support to commence her studies.
Following many hours of discussion the parties came to a mutually acceptable agreement, in which Emily & Elizabeth set up a trust to support Anne through her education. Although the case had been difficult for everyone involved, the longer term benefit of the agreement was to establish a new and supportive relationship between the sisters, which would last for many years into the future.