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There’s a difference between justice and revenge

January 7, 2011

I was recently in court for the beginning of a heated trial between a brother and sister (and their attorneys) who were arguing over their deceased father’s estate. The estate was worth somewhere in the vicinity of a million dollars. A short summary of the case: Sister is trying to have her father’s will thrown out because it disinherits her and she believes her brother improperly influenced her father into doing so. Brother has lived in the same house with mom (now deceased) and dad (same, obviously) for almost his entire life.

Both sides had holes in their arguments – The brother has huge credibility issues because of his past conduct. The sister does not seem to have enough evidence to persuade the court to rule against the brother. The judge clearly did not want to rule in the brother’s favor – but based on the evidence the judge did not think she would have much choice when the time came to make a judgment.

After listening to both attorneys’ opening statements, the judge urged both parties to settle before “Armageddon” happened – meaning there were so many issues in dispute that if both parties continue along the route they’re on, everyone will spend so much time and money arguing that they’ll all turn to ash, including the money in the estate.

This particular judge did a great job at imploring, if not directing, the attorneys to come up with a reasonable solution while the trial was going on. It was clear the two attorneys didn’t like each other either. What was also apparent was that even if the sister won, she would still only receive about $100k from previous estate plans. Another reason the judge saw settlement as a very good possibility. But the sister and her attorney were not persuaded, it was not just about the money. It was about her brother’s underhanded conduct and undue influence over her parents too. The judge stopped the sister’s attorney from saying anymore, looked at the sister and said: “If you’re looking for vindication, this is the wrong place to find it. This is not a court of vindication – we divide money here…If there’s any left.”

The brother was clearly not a good person and probably did influence his father to rewrite his will in some way – but the sister could not prove it. Therefore, the court will have to hold its nose and rule for the brother. Settlement is probably the best opportunity for the sister to get something because at least the other side indicated they would be open to it.

In today’s litigious society, so many people look to the courts and confuse revenge with justice. No matter the result – win or lose – they are still unhappy because they don’t get everything they asked for or worst case scenario, they fight and fight, and ultimately lose. What also is lost is the opportunity to recover anything from the other side.

Maybe it’s the word “settle” that people in disputes back away from – they don’t want to settle, they want to win. In that case, even after a trial win, those waving the victory flag are usually left with empty pockets, broken relationships, and a gigantic legal bill.

If you go to court to force the other side to act reasonably, you’ll have justice. But anyone expecting to make the opposition beg for mercy from the court will be sorely disappointed.

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