In his poem “Mending Fences,” a Robert Frost character declares that “good fences make good neighbors.” Good advice for neighbors, perhaps, but not for family members, particularly when sensitive matters, such as dividing family assets, are on the table.
Island resident Roland Miller has spent more than 30 years helping family members navigate solutions for problems like these through the process of mediation. Mr. Miller, a former school superintendent, is secretary-treasurer of the nonprofit Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP) in Vineyard Haven.
“We are a nonprofit community mediation program, one of 12 partially funded by the Massachusetts Office of Collaboration, based at UMass Boston. We get about $30,000, and raise the balance of our expenses through contributions, grants, and fees appropriate to income. We’ve never turned anyone away,” he said in an interview last week. MVMP handles about 50 cases a year, he said.
Also known as the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Dispute Resolution, the MVMP was founded in 1984 by Judge Herbert Tucker and Clerk Magistrate Thomas Teller as a court-based program, taking only cases referred by the Island’s district court. In 1990, MVMP expanded to accept cases from the community of Dukes County and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The Times caught up with Mr. Miller following a seminar last week sponsored by MVMD attended by about 25 Vineyard residents, who evidently liked what they heard. “We asked them to rate the program on a 1-10 scale. I think 15 people gave us a 10 and the rest rated the program as 8 or 9,” he said.
“We are not lawyers. We help people have difficult conversations,” he said, describing the essence of mediation. The all-volunteer board, many of whom are its mediation practitioners, include William Jacob (president), Sara Barnes (vice president), Mr. Miller, Peter Meleney (at-large), Courtney Brady, Louis Pashman, Christina Simmons, William Stafursky, Gayle Stiller, Rise Terney, and Eric Turner.
Mr. Miller is aware also that he and his associates work in an age when families are often spread throughout the country and world, and on a rapidly aging Island where cottages bought 30 or 40 years ago for $30,000 are now worth hundreds of thousands — or more — dollars:
“We have three areas of work: small claims in Edgartown District Court; civil cases like landlord-tenant and contractor-client disputes, and community cases such as family, divorce, elders, veterans, and neighborhood and workplace issues.
“In the past few years, we have been involved in more family property issues, including three earlier this year,” he said.
“The first generation usually takes care of maintenance and improvements, decides on priority projects, and pays the bills. However, after the first generation, maintenance and ownership issues can be complex and difficult to resolve. In many cases, the second generation and beyond face some serious challenges involving the vacation property, including but not limited to the geographic dispersion of family members; disparity of wealth (among family members); unaligned visions for the future (among family members); conflicting values and priorities for maintenance and improvements, and historical emotional baggage.
“People who inherit often have issues dealing with everything involved, and the situation is generally more complicated if there are several heirs,” he said. Some of the real-time questions involved include “how and who pays bills, how to account for an ongoing divorce, or even whether or not to enclose the front porch,” he said.
Education in conflict resolution is part of the MVMP mission, and Mr. Miller said the seminar he put together was related. His panelists included Island veteran mediator John Wofford, a Cambridge-based mediator and facilitator, also for more 30 years.
The idea that the family “will work it out” is fraught with danger, particularly to family relationships, In the division of inherited assets, Mr. Wofford said. “There is a triangle of elements in mediation cases: the interest of parties, the procedural process, then there is the emotional piece that is so important,” he told the Times in a phone interview last weekend.
Mediation has grown in popularity nationally since the practice became more institutionalized in the mid-1980s. State and federal governments, corporations, and individuals have turned to mediation as a lower-cost, better-resolution outcome than litigation often provides.
Interestingly, both Mr. Miller and Mr. Wofford indicated that in their experience, mediation has an 85 percent success rate, a rate that is mirrored by both federal and corporate studies on mediation. A 2004 article in the Harvard Business Review, for example, said that corporations such as Toyota U.S. and Chevron found that lawsuits dropped by 90 percent after mediation was introduced.
The mediation process is designed to produce voluntary agreement between people. It is different from arbitration, a process in which both parties agree to be bound by the decision, often a compromise, by a third party, nor is it a litigation process in which a court finds for one party over another. WIn-win is the goal in mediation, as the men described it.
There is literature about the trials of family property. Close to home, Island resident Madeleine Blais has written about the emotional parting with her family’s Island home in her best-selling memoir “To the New Neighbors.” Mr. Miller also recommends “Saving the Family Cottage” from nolo.com.
Mr. Wofford assembled five takeaways that mediation participants should expect during his presentation to the Vineyard audience last week
- Start talking as soon as possible
- Be prepared for multiple issues …
- And for complex, emotional and difficult conversations
- Be willing to ask for help from advisors, attorneys, and mediators
- That inheritances based on joint ownership can be problematic. The idea that the heirs “will work it out” is not a failsafe, particularly in situations involving real estate in which joint owners are tenants in common.