Family Conferences: The Antidote to Family Cottage Conflict

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It is one of the “dirty secrets” of the short Canadian summer that the family cottage can be a source of hard feelings, stress, and conflict. I once met a woman who told me that drama over her ex-husband’s family cottage was a big factor in their eventual divorce. While this is an extreme outcome, I wonder how many similar stories are out there?

Whether the property in question is modest or luxurious, rustic or well-equipped, issues such as who gets to use it and when can drive a wedge between family members. This is because a cottage is a valued piece of real estate (with all of the responsibilities this entails), but at the same time it is more than a real estate asset. It is a repository of childhood memories and family traditions. Discussions of practical issues (when to open and close the cottage, ongoing maintenance, even changes to the décor) arouse strong emotions when they are mixed up with family dynamics and alternative versions of a common history.

A family conference is one way to put to rest ongoing conflict over a shared vacation property. Everyone who has some kind of claim on the cottage sits down together and works out a shared plan. Issues to be resolved might include scheduling, how expenses are covered, cleaning and landscaping, will the cottage be rented to non-family members, and if so, who will manage that. You might also talk about basic expectations around tidiness and supplies.

Follow these guidelines to make the most of your family conference:

Be clear on your objectives. Are you making decisions for this season only, or coming up with a plan for the next five years?

Draft an agenda. What issues are on the table, and in what order are you going to go through them?

Make a commitment to hearing one another out. Everyone should have the opportunity to speak, and everyone should feel like their viewpoint has been heard.

Use video if someone can’t be there in person. Skype, Zoom, and Google Hangouts are great ways of meeting together when you can’t be physically in the same room.

Have the full information on hand. As much as you can, discuss real numbers and timelines. Bring the documents related to insurance, past maintenance costs, etc. If changes to the ownership structure are on the table, have someone meet with an accountant or financial planner and report back to the group on tax and other implications. Avoid discussions around “possible” consequences.

Decide how you will decide. Are you aiming for unanimous agreement? Majority vote? Coin tosses for low-stakes decisions? Most people understand that they won’t get their way on every decision. But if it seems like decisions are constantly going against one person, that will likely be a barrier to long-term resolution.

Don’t restrict attendance. Sometimes people want to exclude spouses and partners from a family meeting. This is usually a bad idea. In most long-term relationships, people are making shared decisions and want their partner to be on board. If a partner is excluded, then he or she may not understand the reasons behind key decisions. You might think that everyone is in agreement, only to have someone go back on a decision after discussing with their partner.

Get it in writing. Memories are faulty, and it is easy to overlook important details if they aren’t written down.

Consider working with a professional. Afraid that cousin John will dominate the meeting? Concerned that tensions are already high? Consider working with an experienced mediator or facilitator who will know how to manage difficult personalities and strong emotions.

Summer is short, and vacation time is precious. Don’t let conflict over a vacation property compromise your enjoyment.

About the images: First photo by Jennifer Aitkens from Guelph, Ontario, Canada – Green Shutters, CC BY 2.0, Link Second photo by Altius Architecture – Jonathan Savoie –, CC BY 2.0, Link