On May 27, 2015, Reuters reported that a Georgia judge had agreed to appoint a mediator to help the family of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decide whether to sell Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize and his personal Bible.  Dr. King carried the Bible during the historic marches and rallies of the ‘60’s, and President Obama took the oath of office on it at his second inauguration.  According to the article, the “fight pits the slain civil rights leader’s sons Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, who want to sell the medal and Bible, against King’s surviving daughter, Bernice King, who opposes the sale of items she calls ‘sacred’ to the family.”

This family drama illustrates two important principles.  The first is that a well-thought-out and thoroughly-implemented estate plan will give your family priceless guidance.  The second principle is that there are better ways to resolve conflict than in the courtroom.

The benefits of good planning.  Putting the time and effort into devising a plan and taking care of all of the details that will make it work effectively will pay enormous dividends.  You may not reap them, but your loved ones certainly will.  Putting the right managers in place and taking the guesswork out of determining your wishes will enable your family to focus on honoring your memory and moving on with their lives.  And remember that your estate plan needs to be reviewed and updated from time to time if you want it to be effective.  Things change constantly and sometimes rapidly (the law, your finances, your family situation, your list of trusted advisors), and failing to make necessary adjustments will cause your plan to fall short.

Mediate rather than litigate.  Mediation is a way of getting disagreeing parties together, helping find their common ground, and then working toward solutions that may not make everybody happy, but that will satisfy their shared goals and values.  If you know that your loved ones are at odds, you can engaged a skilled mediator during your lifetime to assure that the eventual settling of your estate will be done peaceably.  If you find yourself in conflict after the death of a loved one or family member, one of the best things you can do is propose that your differences be mediated privately rather than hashed out in open court.  Mediation will save time and money, and you may find that it opens the doors to healing broken relationships. 

Even if you don’t have a Nobel medal or a historic Bible among your personal effects, you can appreciate the value of not having your loved ones shoot it out in court over “who gets what” or whether a prized heirloom should be sold.  You may not be able to make everybody happy with your estate plan or with the assistance of mediation, but you can head off or minimize problems that may tear your family apart and tarnish your legacy.

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