When disputes flare up in business relationships, a failure to thoroughly anticipate and prepare for the future is often to blame.
Consider a dispute that has arisen surrounding the estate of Maurice Sendak, the acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator of dozens of books, including the masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are. As Randy Kennedy describes in a New York Times article about the dispute, when Sendak passed away in 2012, his estate passed to three executors: Lynn Caponera, his housekeeper and caretaker of more than 30 years; his lawyer, Donald A. Hamburg; and John Vitale, a former production director of Sendak’s publisher, HarperCollins.
Sendak also named Caponera the president of his foundation. An avid collector of art and books, Sendak donated some of his and others’ work to museums. But he left the bulk of his assets to his nonprofit foundation, which he established to fund fellowships for emerging artists and other causes.
Caponera, who lives in Sendak’s house in Ridgefield, Connecticut, has drawn fire for a recent decision to withdraw more than 10,000 piece of original art that Sendak lent over the course of decades to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. In response, the Rosenbach has sued Sendak’s estate, claiming that it has failed to deliver rare books of Sendak’s, worth millions, that he had promised to the museum and library.
In accordance with Sendak’s will, Caponera is working to transform Sendak’s home in the woods into a study center and museum. She told the Times that she believes Sendak would have wanted to include most of his drawings and manuscripts in the new house museum.
Caponera began working for Sendak and his longtime companion, Eugene Glynn, a psychiatrist who died in 2007, in the early 1970s when she was just 19 years old. She worked for Sendak until the end of his life; he once said of her, “She’s everybody, she’s everything.” In addition to making her an executor and the head of his foundation, Sendak left Caponera $2 million and a significant amount of land.
Some associates of Sendak have expressed the concern that Caponera, who has no formal business training, is ill equipped to run a well-funded philanthropic foundation. Though by all accounts Caponera was a devoted caretaker—she says she used to sleep near his room with a baby monitor to make sure he stayed safe during the night—she reportedly was not involved in his artistic dealings.
Countering that she is up to the task of paring down his collection for the planned museum, Caponera recalls Sendak saying to her, “Lynn, you’ll know what to keep and what not to.” All three of the estate’s executors said that decisions about Sendak’s work and collection would be made carefully and that any sales would be applied to his foundation and the museum, which could open by late 2015.
The dispute between the Sendak estate and the Rosenbach Museum and Library attests to the challenges that can arise when decision makers fail to adequately plan for the future. Though Sendak did establish a foundation and make broad plans for a house museum, he did not appear to communicate his intentions clearly to the various stakeholders involved, such as the Rosenbach. In addition, he left many questions regarding his wishes unresolved. By entrusting those decisions primarily to Caponera, he exposed her to scrutiny and criticism.
Obviously, the situation speaks to the importance of careful estate planning under the guidance of experts. More broadly, it serves as a reminder of the common tendency to overlook long-term concerns when making decisions in negotiation and other contexts.
To ensure that their decisions don’t turn into conflicts requiring the need for expensive and stressful dispute resolution, business negotiators need to do the hard work of thinking and talking through how various scenarios could unfold. By doing so, they will be better positioned to negotiate sound decisions that stand the test of time.
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