From Lee Jay Bermans’Eye On Conflict Blog
Two Connecticut sisters, 87-year-old Rose Bakaysa and 84-year-old Theresa Sokaitis, are involved in a lawsuit over a $500,000 lottery win. Theresa filed suit after Rose ignored a written agreement between the two that stated they would split equally all lottery winnings. After Rose hit the jackpot in 2005, she shared the winnings with her brother instead. Theresa wants Rose to honor the contract. See “Elderly Sisters Battle Over $500,000 Jackpot.”
Like almost every dispute, the argument between Rose and Theresa has a back story. After Rose’s 2004 heart surgery, and Theresa nursing Rose during her recovery, the sisters had a tiff over a few hundred dollars. Theresa told Rose she didn’t want to be partners, and Rose tore up the contact. Theresa kept her copy. When Rose and her brother won the lottery the next year, Theresa showed up to collect. Rose declined. Theresa sued to enforce the contract and, as a result, the two sisters have not spoken for five years.
I knew I was meant to be a mediator when in my 20’s I instinctively reunited my grandmother and her sister, my great aunt, who hadn’t spoken in over 20 years. That’s why this lawsuit – which never should have seen the inside of a courtroom – strikes a special note with me. While it is unfortunate that their contract didn’t have a mediation clause, it is more unfortunate that the Sokaitis family didn’t know what mediation could do for them.
People like this don’t fight over money and contracts. They fight over a lifetime of poor conflict resolution skills. It sounds like “Five years ago, you took advantage of me.” and. “Twenty years ago, you told Dad that I said…”
There is almost always more underlying a dispute than appears on the surface. Good mediators know that pride, acknowledgement of wrongful behavior, admission of guilt and apologies can play an important role in resolving a conflict. Sometimes it is as simple as clearing up a misunderstanding, after which reaching an agreement is considerably easier.
Courts are not equipped to deal with issues such as these. In court, attorneys speak in a language unfamiliar to the average person and make procedural motions that at times seem to have little to do with the dispute itself. Only mediation gives people the chance to actively participate in their dispute resolution process and in creating a solution to their disputes with the assistance of a skilled mediator and the guidance of their legal counsel.
Mediation is the best dispute resolution mechanism for Rose and Theresa. If their judge doesn’t refer them to mediation, and they don’t find a skilled mediator themselves, their trial will only determine who takes home the winnings, leaving the sisters to live their final days angry at each other and not speaking. A skillful mediator will not only help Rose and Theresa determine who gets the money, but will also help them see the big picture – namely that their relationship, especially at this age, is more important than a tiff from years gone by or than an amount of money that is more than they could spend in their remaining days.