Mediating Contested Probate Matters

For many years, litigating parties have engaged in alternative dispute resolution for the purpose of attempting to resolve their disputes without judicial intervention. Mediation, one of the more common forms of alternative dispute resolution, is a process where a neutral mediator “acts to encourage and facilitate the resolution of a dispute between two or more parties . . . [by] assisting the parties in identifying issues, fostering joint problem solving, and exploring settlement alternatives.” Fla. Stat. 44.1011. Mediating a dispute prior to litigating has numerous potential benefits, including efficiency, cost savings, confidentiality, and probably most importantly, the ability of the parties to reach a resolution among themselves. This last benefit is of particular importance because, unlike a trial where litigants are forced to put their fate in the hands of either a judge or a jury, participants in a mediation are not only afforded the ability to have a say in the resolution of their dispute, but they are able to be actively involved in the process of creating that resolution.

As a result of these benefits, Florida law highly favors the ability of parties to engage in mediation and informal settlement of their disputes. For example, Florida’s Probate Code approves of the ability of interested persons to agree amongst themselves as to their respective entitlements to an estate, as long as it does not affect the rights of others. Fla. Stat. 733.815. Generally, parties engaging in their own informal settlement discussions should find it comforting that any agreement they come to will be enforced by the Courts. However, a recent case from Florida’s First District Court of Appeal cautions parties engaging in mediation to carefully consider a mediated settlement agreement before entering into it.

In Pierce v. Pierce, the Florida appellate court reviewed a district court’s order setting aside a mediated settlement in a hostile will dispute between two sisters entrenched in a battle over their deceased mother’s assets. As permitted by Florida statute, the trial court ordered the parties to engage in mediation in an effort to reach a mutually agreeable, full and complete compromise of their dispute. Thereafter, the parties engaged in a day-long mediation session that resulted in a settlement of their dispute. However, within days of negotiating the settlement, one of the sisters filed a motion to vacate the settlement agreement, claiming that she had been coerced into signing the settlement agreement.

After a hearing on the relevant issues, the trial court issued an order vacating the settlement, agreeing with the sister that her signing of the settlement agreement was obtained through coercion. The crux of the decision rested on the fact that during the mediation, the sister had requested time to take the agreement home and review it, only for that request to be denied. The lower court found that the “request for additional time to review was not given the priority or emphasis it should have [been given] because [the sister] was fatigued and emotionally distraught from the exhaustive mediation efforts.” Because of this, the trial court felt that the sister had not “freely, knowingly and intelligently entered into the agreement,” and it should therefore be vacated.

On review, the appellate court held that setting aside the award was unwarranted. Discussing Florida’s favorable view of mediated settlements, the appellate court reasoned that “as a general rule, the standard for disregarding a settlement agreement between parties is high,” and “the inquiry on a motion to set aside an agreement reached through mediation is limited to whether there was fraud, misrepresentation in discovery, or coercion.” In the appellate court’s view, the fact that the sister may have been fatigued by the extensive mediation and later had second thoughts did not reach the level of fraud, misrepresentation, or coercion necessary to vacate the agreement under Florida law.

This case confirms in a probate setting what has been true in Florida for many years-once you enter into a mediated settlement, it will be very hard to wiggle your way out of it. Generally, this is a good thing, in that it furthers the goals of mediation in general, namely, the goals of efficiency, finality, and cost effectiveness. However, before signing off on a mediated settlement, make sure that the settlement encompasses your agreement, and that both you and your attorney are comfortable with the settlements terms. Remember, a day of mediation is non-binding unless you sign off on a settlement agreement, so there is nothing wrong with taking a few days to consider the agreement before signing. If you or someone you know has questions about estate planning or probate litigation, including alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation, please do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Chepenik Trushin LLP, who are ready, willing, and able to assist with your estate planning needs.