January 14, 2014
Authored by: Luke Lantta
With any litigation, settlement can bring doubts, second thoughts and regret for the parties involved. They may find themselves asking whether they should have given up what they did, could they have gotten more, or should they have taken their chances with a jury or judge. Because estate litigation can end up being such an emotional roller coaster for the people involved, these feelings may be even more common for the settling parties and parties sometimes may try to ‘undo’ the settlement agreement. In Pierce v. Pierce, a Florida trial court allowed a party to rescind a mediated estate settlement agreement, but then a Florida appellate court reversed and enforced the estate settlement agreement.
Tamra Pierce and Linda Pierce were in a fight over their mother’s will. At mediation, the sisters reached a settlement agreement after Linda was purportedly denied an opportunity to take the agreement home over the weekend to study it. Within hours after executing the agreement, Linda began to have doubts. After taking a night to reflect on and further review the agreement, Linda went to the mediator’s office on a Saturday morning and hand delivered a note asking that the agreement be rescinded. On the following Monday morning, Linda met with her lawyer and told him to file a motion to vacate the agreement. Because the lawyer said such a motion would put him in a conflict of interest, Linda asked him to draft the motion, which she filed pro se. This was a very quick attempt to rescind the agreement, and the trial judge found that Linda did not freely, knowingly and intelligently enter into the settlement agreement. Therefore, it was vacated.
The appellate court, however, reinstated the settlement agreement and reminded us just how difficult it is to get out of a mediated estate settlement agreement. The appellate court found that the trial judge’s findings were not supported by competent substantial evidence, and fell short of the standard for setting aside a mediated settlement agreement.
In reaching its decision, the appellate court borrowed heavily from law on mediated settlement agreements in family law cases. In looking at the record, there was no evidence that Linda signed the settlement agreement as a result of fraud, misrepresentation, coercion or overreaching. The evidence showed that Linda was represented by counsel, drafts were exchanged back and forth between the feuding sisters, and Linda was active in negotiating the terms and conditions of the agreement. While Linda may have requested an opportunity to take the agreement home, at the end of the day she read and signed the agreement without requesting additional time. Even if Linda was fatigued and emotionally distressed by the process, and suffered second thoughts, these facts, without more, did not warrant setting aside an otherwise valid agreement.