In re Pierce v. Pierce, the First District Court of Appeals (1st DCA) sets the standard for utilizing a mediation settlement agreement in estate litigation cases similar to family law. In fact, it was the 1st DCA’s opinion that it is well established that “mediation and settlement of family law disputes is highly favored in Florida law.” See Griffith v. Griffith, 860 So. 2d 1069, 1073 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003). Further, section 733.815, Florida Statutes is embraced by the Florida Probate Code in settling probate disputes and 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…” (emphasis added).
The lower court judge held that he could not find that Linda entered the agreement “freely, knowingly and intelligently” and set aside the settlement agreement. Thereafter, the case went to the 1st DCA. The 1st DCA reversed the lower court’s ruling due to lack of substantial competent evidence and the lower court’s findings fell short of the standard needed to set aside a mediation agreement In re Pierce, 2013 Fla. App. LEXIS 19597, 2013 WL 6438955 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1st Dist. Dec. 10, 2013). The cause is remanded for further proceedings consistent with the 1st DCA’s opinion.
IMPACT OF A MEDIATION SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT
A Mediation Settlement Agreement is a contract. Therefore, as long as the agreement is “freely, knowingly and intelligently entered into” it more than likely will stand. Of course, other requirements for a contract still need to be met in order for the contract to be valid which are beyond the scope of this article.
Case in point, Pierce v. Pierce (In re Pierce), Linda and Tamra Pierce were two sisters who were involved in a will dispute over their mother’s estate. After a strenuous litigation battle, the sisters went to mediation. On Friday, July 24, 2009, both sisters, with their respective attorneys present, reached a property settlement agreement at the end of a long day of mediation. Linda had second thoughts after a few hours of executing the agreement. The next morning after the mediation, she left a note with the mediator and then on Monday met with her attorney. On July 30, 2009, Linda M. Pierce, pro se, filed a motion to vacate with the claim of coercion in signing the settlement agreement after her request to take home the agreement to review was denied by the mediator. Appellant responded by filing a motion on September 17, 2009, to enforce the settlement agreement. After a lengthy hearing, the lower court judge entered the order which was later heard and reversed by the 1st DCA.
Like any other contract, in order for Linda to prevail she would need to prove that there was some type of fraud, coercion or misrepresentation in discovery that occurred in forming the property settlement agreement. A general rule in any contract is that “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.” See Griffith v. Griffith at 1073 (quoting Casto v. Casto, 508 So. 2d 330, 334 (Fla. 1987)).
Further, while an estate litigation case or will contest may be emotionally charged and stressful, it does not mean that a property settlement agreement is invalid as “emotion is not grounds to set aside an otherwise duly-executed property settlement agreement.” Hahn v. Hahn, 465 So. 2d 1352, 1354 (Fla. 5th DCA 1985). Another district court case held that a property settlement agreement made “in good faith and free from fraud, deceit, duress, coercion or overreaching should be upheld by the court.” O’Connor v. O’Connor, 435 So. 2d 244,345 (Fla. 1st DCA 1982).
Lastly, Linda partook in reviewing and correcting several drafts of the settlement agreement. In addition, she was involved in the negotiation of the terms and provisions. A meeting of the minds occurred: 1) there was an offer, 2) she negotiated, 3) she agreed to the terms and provisions, and thereafter, she executed the settlement agreement.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR A WILL CONTEST?
If you partake in mediation to settle your estate property dispute and thereafter sign a property settlement agreement, then it may be binding. In order for the agreement to be vacated or modified, “[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).
As a result, it is imperative to have an experienced probate and trust litigation attorney represent you during mediation even for estate property settlement matters. Before executing an agreement, understand that you are entering into a binding contract.
If you feel that fraud, coercion or misrepresentation has occurred in a mediation settlement agreement or in handling of a probate or trust matter, contact Florida Probate and Trust Litigation Attorney Thomas Upchurch at (386) 272-7445 or email him email@example.com to obtain a legal consultation.
If you need assistance in Volusia County, Flagler County,Sumter County, Putnam County,Hillsborough County, Miami-Dade County, Broward County, or Palm Beach County contact Attorney Thomas Upchurch at (386) 272-7445 for your free initial consultation. If your county is not listed, assistance may still be provided. Attorney Thomas Upchurch is on Facebook. You may like hisFacebook page.
This article only reflects my personal views in my individual capacity. It does not necessarily represent the views of my law firm, and is not sponsored or endorsed by them. The information contained in the article is based solely on opinion, and is provided only for educational purposes and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. No representation is made about the accuracy of the information posted in the article. Articles may or may not be updated and entries may be out-of-date at the time you view them.
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