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Q. My aunt, who had no children, died and left everything (including a condo in Miami) to my cousins and myself. My cousins have almost come to blows over whether to sell the place or use it for vacations and share expenses. How can people resolve such issues?
Unless there is a later memorial service, a death in the family usually requires quick decisions about everything from the location of the funeral to the selection of pallbearers and the wording of the obituary. Emotions are raw. There is loss, and disagreements about details may arise. At such times, an option is to meet with the funeral director, who is on the spot, has heard it all, and may be able to help the bereaved reach agreement.
When property is bequeathed, as in your family's case, survivors' values and priorities are involved — and a meeting with an experienced professional mediator may be useful. "The process involves a somewhat structured format. A mediator guides the discussion, ensures the person who always has the most to say is balanced by others, and tries to get participants to hear each other," says Honey Hastings, a certified family mediator and family law attorney in Wilton, New Hampshire.
Hourly rates for mediation can run from $150 to $300 and up, depending on area and the number of people attending. Five people with five points of view require a mediator at the top of his or her game to help find common ground. For one near you, check the Academy of Professional Family Mediators website at http://apfmnet.org/directory/search.cfm. The site offers a "Find a Mediator" function. One of the options is "Elder Mediation."
The best idea is to have a family meeting run by a trained mediator before a parent or other elder relative dies, says Hastings. She notes that in New Hampshire some local civic groups hold such meetings to help people across generations have the conversation on death and dying.
"Nobody wants to face the subject of death. It's a tough topic," says Hastings. "Most survivors want to do what was wanted, but they just don't know. Typically children want to show their love by having a big, expensive funeral. But what if the person wanted the opposite, yet never expressed the preference – or told survivors A and C about the preference, but not B. Preplanning is best."
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Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners.