Disputes between and among owners of family-owned businesses are sometimes unavoidable. When such disputes progress to litigation, they can be extremely costly, time-consuming, and disruptive for the business and its owners. However, most civil lawsuits still settle before reaching a trial before a judge or jury. More specifically, many of those suits settle through mediation. Indeed, judges routinely encourage parties to attempt to settle their disputes, through mediation or otherwise, before setting a trial date.

Mediation is a process through which parties to a dispute select a neutral third-party – often a retired judge or an attorney with subject-matter experience – to attempt to broker a deal between the opposing sides. Mediation sessions are confidential and provide an opportunity for parties to explore a variety of options for resolving their dispute that otherwise may become unavailable once the case is put in a judge or jury’s hands. If done early in the life of a case, mediation can also allow the parties to avoid substantial litigation costs and business disruption.


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Family members often transfer family-business ownership interests or other assets between each other. Their discussions sometimes progress from informal negotiations to a written term sheet to a final written agreement.  However, a term sheet itself can be found to be a binding agreement if the terms are sufficiently definite for a court to determine each party’s obligations and if the parties’ conduct evidences their agreement to perform according to those terms.

In Kunz v. Kunz, a Court of Appeals in Iowa recently ruled upon a claim by one family member against another to enforce a “Settlement Memorandum” which provided for the purchase and sale of stock in the family business, even though the Memorandum contemplated the drafting of later documents to finalize the transaction.  In 1973, brothers Richard and Robert Kunz formed Happy Homes, Inc., a company that sold factory-built homes.  Richard died in 2007 and his 50% interest in the company was transferred to his wife, Connie.  Connie and Robert then began discussing the sale of Richard’s interests and later participated in mediation to aid in these discussions.


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