ALL IN THE FAMILY: When Family Members Disagree Over Land Use

by David J. Colligan
September 29, 2017

Conflict in family relationships is inevitable.

It happens in strong families and broken ones. It happens over something as simple as where to vacation, or circumstances as complicated as deciding upon the best use of real property. As speculation grows over the future of hydrofracking in New York State, we’re seeing more and more situations where joint landowners are at odds over property matters. Here’s some guidance on how to keep the peace, even when you disagree.

First, be sure all family members understand the issue. The “issue” is the problem or topic that leads to a conflict. Issues form the basis for the agenda of negotiations. They may be emotional issues, substantive issues, or even procedural issues. For example, are the disputing family members concerned about whether to lease the property, or is the disagreement really about clarifying ownership? Is the family member against leasing property for oil exploration, or does he simply want more information about safety practices? He might just want to slow down the process of deciding what to do with the property. Conflicts sometimes get so heated that no one remembers what drove the participants apart in the first place. It’s always a good idea to identify the issue before the conflict takes on a life of its own.

Second, get a clear understanding of each family member’s position. A position is a specific proposal or solution that a person adopts to meet interests or needs. It’s usually a pre-selected outcome that someone arrives at after considering what’s important to him or her. For example, a position might be that John will consider leasing property if the family is paid $500 per acre. Or, Susan refuses to negotiate with a gas company unless the family is part of a landowner coalition. Both John and Susan have identified a specific desired outcome, even if no one is sure about the reasons underlying that proposal.

Third, dig down to the root of the matter and seek to understand the interests that may be at play. For example, Uncle Joe may say he’s against a proposed lease offer, but in reality he wanted a say-so over the terms. He might feel as though he’s losing control over his interest in the property. Another family member may be considering a divorce, and is worried about the impact of future lease royalties on her financial picture. A more experienced family member may believe that he or she should be consulted on every decision—large or small—simply by virtue of his or her age. There are situations where an adult child stops a deal from going forward because it’s the first time this person has been able to manipulate a smarter or stronger sibling. Emotional and psychological interests always impact people’s decisions. Sometimes people aren’t even aware of these deeper interests. And often people have conflicting interests. We encourage clients to think like the other family member – to put themselves in the other’s shoes. What might be driving the other person’s position? Is there a health concern? An ego issue? A conflict stemming from childhood?

Resolving a family dispute is easier after the issue is accurately stated, the positions are known, and the interests are explored. If co-owners can reach consensus, great. If not, consult an attorney on what rights you have vis-à-vis your co-owners, even if they are all in the family.