Real Estate Litigation Between Family Members Can Spiral Out of Control.
Los Angeles real estate attorney Laine Wagenseller has handled many lawsuits among family members relating to real estate. Sons suing mothers. Siblings suing siblings. Parents suing children. His firm—Wagenseller Law Firm—in downtown Los Angeles just finished trial in a 3-year old lawsuit among six siblings over the ownership of various apartment buildings. They are currently representing an elderly mother who is being sued by her adult son over the ownership of an investment property. In another current case, they are representing a sister who is suing her brother over some joint property holdings. With his extensive experience in real estate litigation between family members, we asked Mr. Wagenseller what lessons he can pass on to family members who find themselves in a dispute with a relative.
Stop And Take A Breath
“Often what appears to be a real estate dispute really arises from other issues in personal relationships,” Wagenseller explained. “A sibling feels like he is not being listened to, an adult child feels that he is being overlooked, a brother feels as if he is not being respected. These are not legal issues per se, but they are often the motivating factor behind a lot of the family lawsuits that we see. It is important to stop and take a breath before reacting to inter-personal family fights.”
An Experienced Real Estate Attorney Can Save You Money
“The most expensive litigation and the cases that linger the longest are almost always, at least in part, because one of the parties is represented by an inexperienced attorney,” says Wagenseller. “An attorney who does not have a background in real estate often fails to properly evaluate the case. The wrong evaluation often prevents settlement and leads to unrealistic positions in the litigation.”
Wagenseller notes that he actually hopes that the opposing counsel is an experienced real estate attorney who can not only discuss the case with him but who can also explain the case to his own clients. “The cases that have spun out of control are those where the other side hired a personal friend who, for example, is a personal injury attorney with no experience in real estate disputes. An experienced real estate attorney may cost more per hour but can save you money in the long run.”
Do A Cost-Benefit Analysis Of The Litigation
“Family members constantly come to me proclaiming ‘I want to destroy my [brother, sister, relative] and I don’t care how much it costs,’” Wagenseller explains. “I always explain that courts do not award revenge or replace lost pride. Courts don’t force parties to apologize or love their family members. Usually, they just award money.”
“But often family members get caught up in the fight and lose sight of the outcome. I have had parties that spent significantly more in legal fees than their ownership interest was worth, all because one side or the other wanted to fight more than they wanted to resolve anything.”
Wagenseller recommends getting a thorough analysis of the case upfront. The analysis should include what the potential damages are and a projected budget for the litigation. “Make sure to do a cost-benefit analysis of the litigation so you can evaluate whether the fight is really worth it.”
Explore Settlement Early And Often
“I once had a client terminate our representation after I made an initial call to his brother’s attorney and asked what the lawsuit was about and what they wanted,” Wagenseller recalls with a smile on his face. “My client thought that my even talking to the opposing counsel showed weakness and he demanded that we fight.”
“Almost all real estate lawsuits settle. And, more importantly, almost all real estate lawsuits should be settled. A party should explore settlement early and often. There is no downside to discussing settlement, and there may be significant upside to ending the litigation.”
Wagenseller has spent over 25 years representing family members in real estate litigation in the Los Angeles Superior Court and surrounding courts. He knows that family lawsuits are not going away. But after having resolved so many of these cases he knows what works and what doesn’t. Because family members fighting in court involves both legal and emotional issues, Wagenseller’s experience with so many fighting families has given him substantial insight into resolving them.