NO DEAL ! BITTER FLORIDA WILL DISPUTE BETWEEN SISTERS: setting aside a probate mediation settlement agreement
This is the case of a bitter Florida will dispute between two sisters that’s been going on for over four years. That’s right, a Florida estate dispute, and a Florida probate litigation case that’s keeping the Florida probate lawyers gainfully employed.
This is a very recent probate litigation case that went up to the Florida appeals court, which handed down an opinion literally days ago. It involves a will dispute in Florida, along with setting aside a settlement agreement which was the product of a probate mediation.
Two sisters have been “embroiled in a bitter will contest since the death of their mother”. To their credit, or perhaps to the credit of their probate lawyers, they mediated the will dispute. Mediation is a process by which parties who are involved in a Florida lawsuit convene or meet with a mediator in an attempt to resolve one or all issues regarding their dispute. In Florida probate court, probate disputes, inheritance lawsuits, and will disputes are often referred to mediation. Florida mediation may be a very effective way to resolve Florida estate disagreements and probate lawsuits.
The sisters, after mediating, or, at the mediation, signed a written settlement agreement. Within hours after that, one of the sisters reneged. She went to the office of the mediator on a Saturday morning and hand delivered a note with a request that the probate settlement agreement be set aside. She also met with her attorney the next Monday morning, after which her attorney filed a motion to set aside the mediated probate settlement agreement. Evidently, this sister had wanted additional time to evaluate the proposed settlement agreement and, she was evidently “fatigued and emotionally distraught from the extensive mediation efforts.”
Can you set aside a Florida probate mediation settlement agreement? What if you were exhausted from the Florida probate mediation process? The answer: no! If you signed a probate deal, then the deal is the deal. Unless, there’s some type of fraud.
Here’s what the Florida appeals court said:
“It is well established that “mediation and settlement of family law disputes is highly favored in Florida law.” Griffith v. Griffith, 860 So.2d 1069, 1073 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003). The Florida Probate Code has embraced this preference in section 733.815, Florida Statutes, which provides that “interested persons may agree among themselves to alter interests, shares, or amounts to which they are entitled in a written contract executed by them. The personal representative shall abide by the terms of the contract ….”
So, does the mediated probate settlement agreement get set aside or rescinded? Or, perhaps put another way, can you make a deal on a Monday, and then reneg on it on a Tuesday?
Here’s some more of what the Florida appeals court said: “Thus, as a general rule, “[t]he standard for disregarding a settlement agreement between parties is high” and ” ‘the fact that one party to the agreement apparently made a bad bargain is not a sufficient ground, by itself, to vacate or modify a settlement agreement…….Put succinctly, “[t]he inquiry on a motion to set aside an agreement reached through mediation is limited to whether there was fraud, misrepresentation in discovery, or coercion.” Crupi v. Crupi, 784 So.2d 611, 612 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001)….. entering into a settlement agreement may be emotionally stressful, but “emotion is not grounds to set aside an otherwise duly-executed property settlement agreement.”
Is the Florida appeals court suggesting that there is no “Monday morning quarterbacking”? Was there any fraud, misrepresentation or coercion?
In reviewing the record of the probate court, the Florida appeals court said that there was no evidence that the signing of the mediated settlement agreement was a result of fraud, misrepresentation, coercion, overreaching. Rather, the evidence showed that the sister, now complaining of the deal she struck, was represented by a Florida probate lawyer, she was actively involved in the negotiations and, at the end of the mediation she read the settlement agreement and signed it. The fact that the sister may have been fatigued or distressed and “later suffered second thoughts” without more, “do not provide grounds for setting aside in otherwise valid agreement.”
In other words, if you’re involved in a Florida will dispute, probate litigation, or an inheritance trial, mediation may make a lot of sense. But if you agree to anything, such as a mediated settlement agreement, or an order, and you sign it or agree to it and it’s in writing, you can’t have second thoughts. You can’t renege. No welching. Unless…………… There is evidence that there was fraud, misrepresentation, coercion, or duress. And evidence means evidence in a Florida probate court. Testimony. Documents. Facts. If you would like a complete copy of this very recent opinion, email Michelle@pankauskilawfirm.com.