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MSBA panel examines how mediation in orphans’ court can keep feuding families together

(Vladimir Cetinski /

(Vladimir Cetinski /

When families fight, mediation can help resolve disputes before rifts form and relatives stop speaking to each other. And, as people live longer, there are more possible conflicts among family members about who takes care of an aging parent, who serves as personal representative for an estate and the distribution of property after someone dies.

Baltimore County Orphans’ Court has had a mediation option in probate matters for a decade and Prince George’s County is preparing to launch a program soon. Proponents and practitioners of orphans’ court mediation will speak about their experiences at a session Thursday at the Maryland State Bar Association’s annual meeting.

“This is a way of not having winners and losers and everyone becomes part of the process,” said Juliet R. Fisher, an orphans’ court judge in Baltimore County, where around 80 percent of matters referred for alternative dispute resolution settle.

Mediation provides a more therapeutic way of finding a solution to guardianships, nursing home care and estate distribution to “stop the bleeding” and prevent a family from breaking apart, according to Fisher.

“Those sorts of things are so ripe for someone sitting down and dealing with them because it is a little bit of therapy,” she said.

In Baltimore County, a coordinator oversees the program and screens cases to determine if they are suited for mediation. Some have legal issues that will need to be decided by a judge, but alternative dispute resolution is deemed appropriate in others.

Angela J. Silverstein, the program’s co-chair, said fighting over how to care for mom and dad or their money after the fact is an emotional time which mediation can help with in some cases.

“I think mediation has a place in anything having to do with the family, anytime you can defuse the frustration and preserve family,” said Silverstein, of Bodie, Dolina, Hobbs, Friddell & Grenzer PC in Towson.

In cases of contesting wills, if attorneys are involved and the dispute goes to court, the estate may have suffered by the time the case concludes, she added.

“When the attorneys are done, there’s nothing left to inherit,” she said.

Thursday’s session will involve experts in alternative dispute resolution as well as elder and probate law. Panelists will discuss the latest issues that arise when dealing with disputes and the new rules for mediation being promulgated in orphans’ courts.

One of the goals of the session is to let lawyers know that alternative dispute resolution in orphans’ court cases is a possibility, according to Silverstein.

“I think there are plenty of people in the estates and trust realm that may not even think of mediation or collaborative law as a way to handle these kinds of cases,” she said.

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