Litigation in wealthy families—how heirs are helping other families. Part One: Olivia Boyce Abel

By Barbara Blouin with Olivia Boyce Abel

My third book, Labors of Love: The Legacy of Inherited Wealth, Book 2 (one of nine Inheritance Project publications) includes two accounts about the harmful and potentially irreversible damage done by lawsuits over family-owned property (land) or family-owned businesses. One of these features Olivia Boyce-Abel’s work with families where conflict is brewing over family lands and/or homes. The other story from Mark J. (a pseudonym), part two of this subject, (I’m still working on it) is about large family businesses, which, of course, includes real estate.

Although these two stories differ in many ways, they share some important similarities. Both Mark and Olivia are in the third generation of wealthy families, although Mark’s extended family is at a much higher level of wealth. In both families, the struggles over control and ownership of businesses or property, or both, were long-lasting and destructive. In Mark’s family the litigation tore apart the fabric of what had been a tight-knit, caring extended family, leaving it in disarray. The bitterness still remains unresolved.

Olivia’s family has intentionally worked to heal the bitterness, and for her part it is resolved. Her years of working with families have taught her that no one in her family, or in other families, is inherently evil or wrong. It is a matter of differing values and perspectives, combined with poor communication skills.

Last but not least, both Mark and Olivia have found ways to work with other inheritors in order to help them avoid litigation, if possible, or, if litigation has already begun, to minimize the harm done and find a solution that would be acceptable to all.

OLIVIA’S STORY

“When you have land, there is a sense of place—a place you’ve always gone to. You form attachments to it. We [ed: Olivia and her mother] also felt we were stewards for the land—its protectors. The land needed us to be its spokespersons because it didn’t have a voice.”

When I asked Olivia for an interview she invited me to spend the night at her home outside Santa Cruz, California. It was the longest and most intense of all the many interviews I have done over the years. The principal focus of our time together was Olivia’s account of the lawsuits in her generation over a legacy of a three-thousand-acre coastal property in South Carolina that included a barrier island. I have chosen to simplify and condense the account of the litigation that arose after the death of Olivia’s grandfather because the situation is long and complicated.

Olivia’s grandfather left one third of his estate (including the land) to his son Horace, one third to Olivia’s mother, and one third to his wife—Olivia’s grandmother. Upon the grandmother’s death, she left her share in trust to her grandchildren—Olivia’s generation. Horace wanted to develop the land on the coast in a manner similar to Hilton Head Island, but Olivia’s mother was against this type of development. As is common in many inheritance situations, the dispute in Olivia’s family began after someone’s passing. After Horace’s death the family infighting began: Olivia’s brother and cousin wanted to sell several large chunks of the land to a developer for a high price. Olivia and her mother were opposed to this plan; they found an environmental attorney because they wanted to get a conservation easement on the land. But the brother and cousin ignored the concept. Instead, they accepted a “gentleman’s handshake” that the land would not be untastefully developed, and they sold the portion of land for which Olivia and her mother were trying to get a conservation easement.

Then Olivia’s mother, who was suffering from an aggressive, rewrote her will, creating a foundation in order to protect her one-third undivided share of the land. But one of Olivia’s sisters declared that she might contest the will. Three months after the mother’s death, Olivia’s brother and the same sister who said she would contest the will filed two lawsuits—one to overturn the deed of the land which was now protected in the foundation, and another to contest the will. Later they filed a third lawsuit to have Olivia removed as executor for her mother’s will. The family was in active litigation, with no one really winning. Finally, at the closing arguments of a painful jury trial of the will contest, they reached a settlement. As is always the case, considerable damage had been done to the family harmony. The sister and brother won the third lawsuit.

Two years later, Olivia appealed both rulings at the South Carolina Supreme Court. Olivia won the appeal of the ruling in the third lawsuit, which objected to her being the executor and a trustee to her mother’s foundation. The story doesn’t end here. It was thirteen years from the time that the initial litigation began until all the disputes were finally settled. The enormous costs of legal and court fees resulted, among other losses, in the need to sell the original family home, which is now a first-rate B & B—a quasi-museum. At the end of a thirteen-hour videotaped deposition, as the litigation was still dragging on, Olivia said to herself, “This is hellacious. What can I possibly do to help other people, so that they won’t have to go through something like this?”

She answered her own question, and the idea of Family Lands consulting was born. Two years later, in 1994, Olivia founded Family Lands Consulting.  According to her web site, “Family Lands Consulting was created to assist families in preserving family accord, as well as their land. . . . [Olivia] works with individuals and families nationally [ed: in the United States] as well as internationally on issues of transference and preservation of family homes and lands.”

“Olivia has completed over 200 certified hours of post-graduate training in mediation, conflict resolution, facilitation, and negotiation of effective environmental agreements.” She has in-depth experience in dealing with property stewardship, multiparty ownership, and dispute resolution. She excels in working with family dynamics to foster creative situations.”

Over the last twenty years, Olivia’s work with families has led her to focus on teaching communication skills to all families she works with, even when they insist that communication isn’t part of the problem. She knows we are not taught to communicate with one another clearly and directly. Instead of asking clarifying questions, we make assumptions, which lead to misunderstandings and can lead to adversarial posturing, and then possibly even litigation. Her work with Family Lands has expanded into Boyce-Abel Associates, with her co-facilitator, Dr. David Gage, a clinical psychologist with expertise in family businesses and partnerships. Together they facilitate, mediate, and consult with families on all aspects of financial resource transference, land issues, estate planning, family foundations, and family businesses.

On a personal and family level, Olivia sees how her own bitterness, anger, and belief that she was right created an irreplaceable loss of family connection. She sees clearly how these beliefs and negative emotions separated her and her son from their family for over seventeen years. It also kept her from moving forward with her life in a positive, healthy way. Thankfully, along with her professional transformation, Olivia has done extensive personal growth work, leading to personal and familial transformation. She forgave herself for her role in the litigation, and she forgave her family, recognizing that everyone had got caught up in a horrible family struggle—one that was certainly unique but in no way uncommon.