Saturday, June 17, 2006

What Motivates People to Sue?

Another lawyer who handles disputed wills and estate cases quipped that he practices greed law. He said it in jest, and I thought it was funny—and still do. But I don’t think that it is really accurate.

Over the years of helping people resolve disputes over wills and estates, I have come across very few people whom I thought were motivated by greed. I would put greed low on the list of what motivates people to sue over a will or estate plan.

What motivates someone to sue? Each case is different, but I would put down the leading motives as follows:

1. Hurt feelings. Take a son who is left out of his father’s will. The son on reading the will may feel that his father didn’t love him. Even if the father and son were not close, or were estranged in later years, the disinherited son will probably be hurt.

2. Vindication. In the above example, if the father and son were estranged, the son may feel that if he contests his father’s will he may be vindicated in his conduct. His father was wrong, and he wants to go to court to prove it. Or, if the father and son were not estranged, the son may feel the need to prove that they did have a good relationship.

3. A belief that someone has had an improper influence on the will or estate plan. If in the above example, the father was elderly and living with the son’s brother, and the father left everything to the brother, the son may feel that the brother took advantage of the circumstances, and persuaded the father to make the will he made.

4. A sense of unfairness. A family member may feel that the will or estate plan does not fairly recognize his or her relationship with the deceased, contributions to the estate, or personal care or services given to the deceased.

5. Financial need. In some cases the deceased has not adequately provided for a family member, such as a spouse, who needs a greater share of the estate to enjoy a reasonable standard of living.

6. A special attachment to an estate asset, such as real estate, a collection or a business.

What difference does it make why someone sues?

When assisting a client who wishes to exclude a child or give children unequal shares, I like to talk to my client about how to accomplish the client’s goals in a way that is least likely to end up in court in the future. It is counter-productive for a parent to put a statement in the will that the child has not been good to the parent. The child who might have accepted the will, may decide to sue after reading the hurtful statement. Although in British Columbia, the court may consider reasons in deciding a claim under the Wills Variation Act, I recommend to my clients that the reasons be set out in a memorandum separate from the will if the reasons are hurtful. If the reasons are in a separate memorandum, and the child does not sue, he or she need never see the reasons.

On the other hand, if the reasons are likely to alleviate any hurt, it may be helpful for them to go right in the will. For example, if a parent has two children, one who is a multimillionaire, and the other who is struggling financially, the parent favoring the struggling child may say in the will that he or she is trying to help the child who needs the funds most.

When I help a client in a lawsuit, I try to understand what motivates each of the people involved. When I represent someone who is suing I need to understand my own client’s motives to help her or him find a satisfactory resolution. For example, if my client feels that someone has improperly influenced the deceased, it will probably be necessary to thoroughly investigate the circumstances before attempting to settle the case. He or she will need to know what happened.

If I am defending a client against a claim in a lawsuit, it is helpful to understand what is motivating the person making the claim. For example, when negotiating with someone whose feelings have been hurt, sensitivity to the hurt costs nothing, and may help settle the claim for a lower amount, and at less cost and risk than a trial.

Understanding the other party's motives may also affect the way I cross-examine them and present my client's case at a trial.

My job might be simpler if it were just about money, and I practiced greed law. But it would be less interesting and less fulfilling.

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