My mother left the family cottage to the four children. I have read so much about problems when ownership is shared. What are your suggestions for solving this complicated situation?
—An Anxious New Owner
Create a formal, legal cottage ownership agreement that includes rules and regulations for how everyone uses and pays for the cottage. This should cover: How cottage time is allocated between the sibs (periods of exclusive usage vs. come and go as you please, for example) and who gets to use it (extended family, friends, renters?); the division of tasks and responsibilities (who does the regular maintenance, and who opens and closes the cottage?); the financial matters (routine bills, extra expenses, emergency funds); and strategies for decision-making and conflict resolution. What if one sibling needs out of cottage ownership? You should plan for a way to keep the cottage in the family should one sibling die, become ill, or decide to sell his or her share.
A co-ownership contract isn’t the sort of document you can bang out in an afternoon. You’ll probably need several family discussions, and then several meetings with a lawyer before the final version is ready to be signed. This may sound like a complicated (and time-consuming) way to uncomplicate the sharing situation, but it’s worth it to prevent misunderstandings, disagreements, and—worst-case scenario—a huge family fight.