The Vacation House Dilemma: What Will You Pass on to the Next Generation?

When you think about the next generations– your children, children’s children, and what you want to pass on to them, what comes to mind? It’s a cocktail of things – wonderful memories, wealth, access to opportunities, close rapport with siblings, and an appreciation of the relationships and communities that have come to shape them. We all hope to get to the point where we think about those next generations and can be proactive in helping them.

How are you going to do that? You’ll do all the right things. You’ll follow advice attentively from your trusted advisers, have family events and vacations that bring you all together, and listen to your children about their needs and desires.

But let’s pause. Family stuff is often complicated. Let’s look at a story to illustrate.

Imagine a beautiful vacation home. The value isn’t clear, but it’s worth several million dollars. Dad passed away six years ago, but Mom knows that they always intended on leaving the property to their children.

The children are no longer close, but there aren’t too many current disagreements between them—no real sharp or nasty schisms. But they are in very different places in their lives. The daughter married into wealth. She’s financially secure, with a husband and two children in high school. The son, however, is another story altogether. He has four children and struggles with money problems due to multiple business failings. The son can be hotheaded and impulsive, and the daughter can be judgmental and cold. It’s a far cry from those days of cavorting on the beach when they were younger, but at least they are cordial. Mom wrestles with the decision about the house but, at the end of the day, figures she’ll just split everything evenly. What’s fair is fair, right? Split stocks, bonds, and allow the siblings (and their spouses) to share the vacation home.

Maybe you can already see where conflict could erupt. One child wants to sell the property, the other wants to keep it. The house becomes emotionally charged on many levels: It represents a source of connection to parents after they are gone, but also a potential financial asset or burden, depending on how you look at it. Now, factor other currents into the discussion: opinions of spouses, old family controversies and resentments, secret keeping, and perceived favoritism by one parent or another.

Its’ easy to see how the siblings may be headed for a difficult conversation that could boil over into arguments and recriminations–despite the fact that all along, Mom has simply been trying to be fair. She’s wanted to do all the good and equitable things. She’s wanted to do right by both of her children.

That’s why we urge you to consider another step in trust and estate planning: Mediation. We’ve been mediating for over 21 years, and we know how contentious these conversations can be.

A mediator is a neutral third party that creates safe space for thorny discussions such as these. A mediator does not represent one party or the other, but rather believes in the power of the parties to come to solutions themselves. We have faith in the power of self-determination. This means that we respect that parties know the most about their own situations, and, when given the right opportunity and circumstances, can come together to resolve the issues.

At Baltimore Mediation, we work from a transformative framework. By this we mean that we do not force agreement or compromise. We do not advocate for particular solutions or decide who’s right or wrong. We do not tell participants how to talk to each other. We do not make parties separate while we conduct shuttle diplomacy. Instead, we offer space for parties to engage in quality dialogue.

What’s more, we know that conflict surrounding finances is not purely about resources, but also involves personality dynamics and differences, sibling rivalries, and other considerations or complications unique to each family. From calm and collected conversations to fiery yelling matches, mediation is a great fit for these conflicts. We aren’t afraid of the emotional. In fact, we know that going to the heart of the conversation will lead to the most authentic and deep agreements and solutions.

That’s why mediation is such an amazing process. Here at Baltimore Mediation we have handled many dilemmas that arise in trust and estate planning. We have helped many families make plans surrounding personal property distribution and facilitated numerous decisions about how to use or co-own a summer home with rights and responsibilities of ownership.

What does that mean for you, the parent? It means that you can offer a neutral process for your adult children to work things out. You can remain a supportive, loving presence. You don’t need to serve as a go-between for the children. If you want to, you could foot the cost and offer the great gift of quality dialogue and engagement. Instead of leaving children with a sense of loss—as well as an opportunity to descend into bitterness—you bestow them with a process that will lead to solutions that are fully owned by them, whether or not all the deep conflicts that might exist are fully resolved.

Mediation generates outcomes that function for participants in their real lives. The parties have the privilege of working through these solutions together, and knowing that they can do that. They may or may not be a little closer to enjoying vacation days together. Maybe they will decide to sell and spring for a shared trip to somewhere else, instead.

Ultimately, however, whatever decisions they arrive at about the vacation house, the process of dialogue to find solutions hopefully will have brought them closer together, rather than driving them further apart.