Pierce v. Pierce, — So.3d —-, 2013 WL 6438955 (Fla. 1st DCA December 10, 2013)

Most inheritance cases settle, and most settlement agreements are never contested. But when they are, it’s good to know what the rules are. For example, if one side is trying to get out of her deal because she claims it was all a big mistake on her part, that’s a unilateral mistake argument, and Florida law is especially tough on them [click here]. On the other hand, if your settlement agreement is screwed up because of an obvious typo both sides missed, that’s a mutual mistake argument, and Florida law’s a little more lenient in those instances [click here]. And finally, if one side wants out of her deal because she was allegedly coerced into signing it, the alleged coercion better be more than just having second thoughts. That’s what happened in the linked-to case above.

Case Study:

The two sisters involved in this case were, as the 1st DCA put it, “embroiled in a bitter will contest since the death of their mother.” In an effort to resolve their dispute, they sought mediation, with their respective lawyers in attendance, and reached a settlement agreement. Unfortunately, within hours of executing the agreement, one of the sisters apparently doubted the wisdom of her decision. Six days later she filed a motion to vacate the settlement agreement, claiming she was coerced into signing it after the mediator allegedly denied her request to take the agreement home over the weekend in order to study it.

Proving once again that no one ever knows for sure what a probate judge is going to do in the face of a good sob story, the judge granted complaining sister’s request to back out of her mediated settlement agreement. In that order, the trial judge found that complaining sister had, in fact, requested additional time to review the agreement but, “this additional time was not provided, not because of any nefarious dealings or subterfuge but rather due to the fact that the final signing by the parties came at the end of a prolonged Friday mediation session.” Based on these findings, the judge ruled he could not find that the complaining sister had “freely, knowingly and intelligently entered into the agreement.”

Does buyer’s remorse equal coercion? NO

When the order vacating the settlement agreement finally got to the 1st DCA, they weren’t impressed. A long day of mediation might be tiring, and signing a settlement agreement at the end of that long day might be stressful, and wishing you might have had more time to think about the deal might lead to second thoughts, but none of this adds up to “coercion.” Once you sign your deal, you own it.

While at one point during the day-long mediation, appellee might have asked if she could have taken the agreement home over the weekend to review it, the record shows only that, at the end of the day, she read and signed the settlement agreement without requesting additional time. That appellee may have been fatigued and distressed by the labor, and later suffered second thoughts, these facts, without more, do not provide grounds for setting aside an otherwise valid agreement.

For those of you faced with this situation, you’ll appreciate the 1st DCA’s summary of the law on this point. It’s the kind of one-paragraph case-law summary that’s perfect for cutting and pasting into your brief.

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 ….” (Emphasis added.) While much of the decisional law we cite on mediated settlement agreements arises from family law cases, we consider the rules expressed in those opinions to be applicable to a mediated settlement agreement arising in probate proceedings. 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.’” Griffith, 860 So.2d at 1073 (quoting Casto v. Casto, 508 So.2d 330, 334 (Fla.1987)). 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). See also Griffith, 860 So.2d at 1072. Furthermore, it has been acknowledged that entering into a settlement agreement may be emotionally stressful, but “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) (observing that while “[t]he wife did testify, without specifics, that she was “emotionally abused” at the time she signed the agreement, [ ] courts have recognized that it is normal for parties in a dissolution proceeding to be emotionally upset”). See also O’Connor v. O’Connor, 435 So.2d 344, 345 (Fla. 1st DCA 1983) (holding a property settlement agreement made “in good faith and free from fraud, deceit, duress, coercion or overreaching should be upheld by the court.”); Bailey v. Bailey, 300 So.2d 294, 295 (Fla. 4th DCA 1974). In other words, where “the evidence establishes nothing more than that, upon reflection, [the party to the agreement] felt the terms of the agreement were not in her best interest[,] ‘[b]uyer’s remorse’ is not a sufficient basis for overturning a settlement agreement freely and voluntarily entered into.” Tanner v. Tanner, 975 So.2d 1190, 1191 (Fla. 1st DCA 2008) (citing, generally, Casto).