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    When a Dispute is About Money … it Rarely Is.

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    We, obviously I think, see a lot of disputes during the probate process. It’s part of what we do day by day. We’ve been running a series of workshops lately with hospice workers all over the Greater Atlanta area. They ask a lot of questions about family disputes because they see it and they see the coming probate issues.

    Talking with them, reading some of the articles we’ve recently posted on Facebook has us thinking about it. Disputes and families and probate. It reminded me of a line in a famous western.

    The Wild Bunch is an iconic 60’s movie.  A western when westerns were fading away to irreverence, it brought a modern sensibility to the genre. It’s bloody, sarcastic, cutting, and has that scene that’s sticking in my head right now.

    It happens early in the film. William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and their gang rob a railroad office in a small, dusty (everything in the movie’s dusty, I’m sure when it was shown in movie theaters sales of soft drinks reached record highs) Texas border town.

    Mayhem follows, there’s a beautifully choreographed shootout that’s only been copied a few hundred times since, the gang gets away (they have to, they’re the stars after all) with bags of coins. They’re rich, they can retire. Except, no, the bags are filled with steel washers. Thousands of worthless washers. The whole thing was a set-up to capture them, they have nothing.

    Holden tells his men not to worry, he’ll come up with a new business plan. He wanders off into the desert to be inspired. When he returns, he reveals the new plan – they will start running guns to Mexico; to the bandits, Poncho Villa, Zapata, whoever will pay.

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    The gang’s Mexican member immediately asks if there’s a chance they’ll end up selling guns to the men who razed his village and killed his family.

    Holden takes a very short moment before answering, “Angel, ten thousand dollars cuts a lot of family ties.”

    Ten thousand dollars cuts a lot of family ties.”

    Before I started practicing in probate law, back in law school days reading some horrific cases (regular ones, for obvious reasons, don’t make it into the casebooks) this line seemed an absolute truth. Unshakable.

    After practicing in the area for awhile, though, I see what our hospice friends see: it’s not so much the ten thousand dollars as what the money, or house, or business, or jewelry, or painting, or stamp collection, or … represent. That is, sheer, unadulterated emotion.

    The value of an item or items in the probate process almost never stand apart from what they represent. Either because an heir treasured something far more than the heir who stands to receive, or the distribution of the assets of an estate are almost irretrievably tangled with love, hate, fairness, and the hundred or so other emotions wrapped up in every interpersonal endeavor.

    That’s what we have to understand, or we can never get past the ten thousand dollars.

     

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