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Texas + Wealth + Family Lawsuits = Dysfunction?

Monday, April 22, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

tboonepickensIt isn’t just Texas. But since we are based in Texas, we do a fair amount of work in Texan family litigation that is contentious in the normal ways while also being complicated by an intense sense of betrayal on both sides of the case. There are almost always psychological issues involved, some more serious than others.

In the last few years, we’ve worked on inheritance disputes, conflicts surrounding family businesses, divorces involving huge sums of money, wars over family trusts and contract violations in a business owned by extended family members (i.e., cousins and siblings, parents, aunts and uncles and a surviving grandparent). America’s royalty are the uber-wealthy. And we find the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” endlessly fascinating, only surpassed by the intrigue of their failings.

It is always disturbing to see the pain and sense of betrayal laid bare among family members. And it is upsetting for mock jurors as well. Their initial sense of fascination as they hear the details of the family history and fortune gives way to feeling weighed down by the emotional burden of the conflict. The mock jurors begin to feel what family members on both sides of the conflict experience and they often make comments like these:

“I am so grateful I didn’t grow up rich!”

“They need some therapy, not a lawsuit!”

“S/he is so ungrateful. Look at what the family did for him/her.”

They should forgive each other and start fresh.”

“Have they forgotten this is family? They need to remember they love each other!”

And so on. They always have the opinion that family disputes should not be worked out in court. They want the family members to remember the value of the relationship and repair the rift. At the same time, they often acknowledge the rift is so huge, it cannot be repaired. But that doesn’t make them feel better. At the end of the day, jurors (like family members) often feel depressed, hopeless, helpless and distressed. Sometimes they are disgusted if, in their minds, there is a bad actor (like an ungrateful child, a malicious uncle, or a jealous cousin) they can point to as the party to blame. Other times, they are disgusted by both sides of the dispute and want to simply throw up their hands.

So we were not surprised to see 85-year-old T. Boone Pickens suing his 58-year-old son Michael for cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking. Specifically, he is charging his son with “invasion of privacy, defamation, libel, harmful access by computer, and extortion”. There are many details of the lawsuit at the Forbes website and it is a sad story with all the elements we’ve consistently seen in litigation within wealthy families. Reader comments communicate the idea that they think they’ve found a “bad guy” in this suit–even with only limited information available.

Forbes tells other stories of high-stakes (read: billionaire) family litigation in Korea and Australia and also here at home between the popular In-N-Out burger family. Every family likely has some dirty laundry. Uber-wealthy families tend to have a bit more than average. And family lawsuits hang it out for all of us to see. The shame and embarrassment often leads to anger and resentment and eventual litigation. T. Boone isn’t alone. But, in our experience, it takes tremendous betrayal for a wealthy family patriarch to speak publicly by filing litigation.

Jurors want to see what they decide as useful in some way. Either useful for resolving the dispute or for settling the situation so the family can heal. They want to solve a problem and make the world a better place.  While jury decisions may resolve the legal conflict, the relationship rifts are rarely fixable. Ultimately, it isn’t funny. It isn’t salacious. It is simply very, very sad.


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