Some probate cases that I work on in the Los Angeles Superior Court are best resolved by a professional mediator than by a sitting judge. Often the mediator is in fact a former sitting judge who has retired from the bench in order to help people address their differences and come to a resolution. (Mediation is not the same as arbitration; one difference between California arbitration and mediation is that with an arbitration, there is often an agreement among the parties at the outset that the outcome is binding whereas with mediation, the outcome is not necessarily binding.)
One case I worked on was ripe for mediation. I was retained by one of the decedent’s children who was born in the 1970s to a woman the decedent had not married. One of the women the decedent had married and with whom he had two sons filed for divorce in the early 1960s. As part of the divorce, the wife obtained a court-ordered judgment for child support for both sons. The decedent had never appeared in court during the divorce proceedings and left it entirely up to the wife to finish it. He then disappeared from the wife’s and his sons’ lives. The wife, however, never finished the divorce and never obtained a court-ordered judgment decree finalizing her divorce.
About 50 years later, the decedent met another woman and they married each other. Shortly after their marriage, he died without a will. At the time of his marriage, he owned his home in Los Angeles free-and-clear. They did not have any children between them.
When his daughter contacted me to represent her as the probate administrator, she was unaware that her father’s marriage to his first wife was never over and she believed that his second wife married him primarily to become his sole heir believing he would not live long.
During the probate, his first wife claimed to be an heir based on the fact that she was still married to the decedent even though she was the one who filed for divorce and never obtained a final judgment granting her divorce petition. She also claimed that if the court determined that she was not a surviving spouse entitled to his intestate estate as an heir, then she should nevertheless receive a distribution for the unpaid child support. She filed a creditor’s claim for the child support and calculated the interest on the unpaid amount. Those children for whom she claimed child support are now in their 50s so the interest on the unpaid principal balance from when they were age 18 was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
His second wife claimed to be the decedent’s surviving spouse and therefore entitled to his intestate estate as an heir. She argued that her marriage did not violate the law against bigamy because she married her husband in good faith, believed him when he told her he was divorced and did not have the responsibility to check the family law court records to see for herself that his divorce some 50 years earlier was granted.
There were 4 lawyers involved in this probate case. I represented the decedent’s child in her capacity as the probate administrator, the first wife had an attorney, the two sons had one lawyer and the second wife also had her own attorney.
All the parties agreed to mediate and selected a retired Los Angeles judge as the mediator. As part of the negotiated settlement, everyone signed a settlement agreement that the judge wrote. The mediation lasted the entire day. Everyone received a part of the decedent’s estate once the house he owned was sold.
This is just one example of hundreds of different situations where mediation works. If you think your situation requires mediation, call an experienced attorney for help. Call Mitch Port at (310) 526-3433.