Does Your Family Need a Mediator?

Seek help in having dicey conversations about complicated issues. ( iStock )

Sure, a legal or tax issue could be putting the brakes on your succession plan, but more often it’s a communication roadblock. Maybe your spouse or sibling refuses to even talk about the hard decision you’re facing, or a father and son are in a decision standoff.

Emotionally charged discussions are a common feature during succession planning.

“Even if you have the willingness to have the conversation, you may not know how,” says Shannon Ferrell, ag law professor at Oklahoma State University Extension. “By having a third-party person involved, you can dislodge some of the obstacles in the conversation and move things ahead.”

A neutral third party, such as a mediator, can help you create a safe place for conversations and conflict, says Amy Wirtz, attorney, mediator and consultant with The Family Business Consulting Group.

“A mediator is hired to help people either define their conflict or help them to resolve conflict,” Wirtz says. “Or, if people know what they are fighting about, a mediator can help build consensus on how to get through the issue.”

Common Misconceptions

Mediation is commonly used during legal conflicts, but it can be equally helpful during family conflicts, says Cari Rincker, principal attorney with Rincker Law.

It might sound scary and overly formal, as most farmers have never used the process, but Rincker and Wirtz offer these guidelines to understand how it works.

  • Mediators do not make decisions for people.
  • Oftentimes, mediation is not a one-and-done event. Several meetings can span multiple months to effectively resolve a conflict.
  • Mediators are not therapists, even though many have counseling training.
  • Mediators cannot make other people do things, as nothing mediators define is enforceable by law until it is drafted in a legal document (for example: wills and contracts).  

Engage a Professional

Most attorneys are trained, and even specialize, in mediation, but you can find non-attorney mediators. If you think a mediator could be helpful for your family, Wirtz suggests asking your attorney questions such as: Are you trained in mediation? How often do you refer people to mediation? What is your philosophy on mediation?

Consider using mediation to sidestep communication landmines. “People who are trying to make hard decisions often need help hearing one another,” Wirtz says.

To access resources and tools to help guide your succession planning journey, visit