Court rejects effort to avoid settlement agreement

In my experience, the vast majority of will contests and related estate disputes are ultimately resolved through settlement at mediation.  The motivation for settlement is driven primarily by several factors:

  • The high costs of litigation. Lawyers and expert witnesses are expensive. In some cases, the estate may be responsible for the fees of the lawyers on both sides;

  • The uncertainty of the results. Estate cases tend to be very fact specific and the outcome at trial may be determined by how jurors view the contestants on a personal level;

  • The effects of litigation on families. Litigation often pits family members against each other. While it may be emotionally satisfying in the abstract to have a jury find that the dastardly brother/cousin was "in the wrong," such desire may fade as the process slogs on; and

  • There is typically a substantial pool of money/property waiting to be distributed when the dispute is resolved. But resolution through litigation is a slow process. A trial will often take 18 months. An appeal can take another 12-18 months, longer if the Texas Supreme Court takes an interest.

Because of those factors, cases often get resolved through mediation.   In estate cases, the settlement agreements are typically called Family Settlement Agreements (FSA) or Mediated Settlement Agreements (MSA). Texas courts are reluctant to overturn settlements agreements.  They are typically not favorably  inclined to claims that a settlement agreement was induced by fraud or that a party "felt pressured" to settle at mediation.  Mediators have various tactics to get parties to a compromise.  It is not unusual for one side to pay more than they thought they ever would and the other side taking less than their "bottom line." That is the very nature of a compromise. In my experience, estate mediations are all day affairs.  Efforts that appear futile in the morning often come together in a rush around 6pm.  In order to document the terms, the mediator and lawyers will draft a (relatively) short document with the essential terms of the agreement, to be signed before everyone goes home.  Such agreements often contemplate a longer document to be executed in the weeks later.  The goal is to get the litigants to agree on the key terms (money) before they leave the mediation. Often, the short agreement specifies that any disagreements regarding interpretation or enforcement of the agreement should be sent to the mediator for consultation, before the parties go to the court for resolution.  In some cases, the short agreement empowers the mediator to act as an arbitrator to resolve any disputes.  In that circumstance, the mediator's decision is final. In Lawson v. Collins, the Austin Court of Appeals considered a circumstance where a party to a will contest tried to avoid the terms of both a mediated settlement agreement and a subsequent arbitration finding.  The mediated settlement agreement provided that: "Any disputes as to the wording of settlement documents or performance hereof shall be submitted to the Mediator, Claude Ducloux, for binding arbitration."  Subsequently, the parties were unable to agree on the terms of the longer form settlement and release. The probate judge ordered the parties to submit the issues to the mediator, who would resolve them acting as arbitrator.  The mediator did so, essentially preparing the final documents the parties were directed to sign. One of the parties filed numerous pleadings seeking to vacate or set aside both the settlement agreement and arbitrator's findings.  She sought to overturn the  mediation agreement, alleging she  signed it under duress and coercion from the mediator and her lawyer at the time. She sought to overturn the arbitration result because it was premised on a valid settlement agreement. The court held a hearing and rejected the efforts to overturn either the settlement agreement or arbitration result.  The court largely based this result on various evidentiary issues.  The court of appeals affirmed. Even absent those evidentiary issues, I suspect the result would have been the same.  Courts will not look to overturn settlements based on bare claims of duress.  Yes, mediation is a draining process.  Yes, a skilled mediator knows the pressure points to nudge the parties to settlement.  But such rarely counts as the kind of duress substantial enough to justify overturning a settlement agreement.  Courts are suspicious that such efforts are the results of "buyer's remorse" and/or second guessing from friends and relatives.  Only in extreme circumstances will a court overturn a settlement agreement.