Monday, December 4, 2017
Last Saturday, I had the unique privilege to sit in on a day of Advanced Probate Mediation Training, a component of a larger ADR program at the Orphans/ Court for Prince George's County, Maryland. The attendees included long-serving mediators from other court divisions, judges and attorneys and individuals interested in a formal mediation process for probate cases. The facilitators for the training were Mala Malhotra-Ortiz and Cecilia Paizs, very experienced educators and ADR specialists. Chief Judge Wendy Cartwright welcomed us all and made it clear that mediation, collaborative probate and structured settlements are three vital programs for the probate division. Certainly this is part of a trend favoring ADR, now applying to post-death disputes.
My strongest impression of the day was the warm and positive demeanor of the folks I met, especially as they were giving up most of their Saturday. I had the feeling that they were eager to share this experience.
Part of the training involved role plays -- and everyone in the room took the exercises seriously. In Maryland, a challenge to a will is called a "caveat" proceeding, and a threshold question for court administrators is whether a specific dispute seems to be a good candidate for referral to mediation.
In one exercise, I played a minor role (a "grandchild") of the testator, in a fact pattern that involved two named beneficiaries, a biological child and a second beneficiary who wasn't a direct blood relation. The fact pattern was realistic, as both sides wanted "accountings" for pre-death expenses by those serving as the caregiver or POA for the elderly testator before her death. The dispute included a long-history of difficult family dynamics, and was realistic as there was a temptation for other family members to take sides with the primary disputants. We even had an "obstructionist" attorney as an assigned role, someone who was still advocating for the purely "legal" outcome during the mediation.
The majority of the participants were also lawyers -- and I could quickly see how uneasy the fact pattern made some attorneys. One option for the mediated outcome was distinctly "nonlegal" -- i.e., permitting the parties to split the proceeds of the estate in a way that was not the same as the testator's directions in her will. The facilitators did an excellent job in counseling the lawyers on how to change their thinking, so as to allow consensus to emerge for a final, written settlement agreement. The fact pattern also put us in the position of needing to think about whether there had been any pre-death elder exploitation, and if so, to discuss how mediators should handle the possibility of a "crime."
I know our law students are going to be very lucky to have Mala Malhotra-Ortiz join us at Dickinson Law in the near future as an adjunct professor. And, by the way, for anyone interested in why probate courts are sometimes called "orphans' courts," I recommend the Court's link above on the history of Orphans' Courts in Maryland.