Florida Guardianship and Probate Rules Do Not Prohibit Voluntarily Dismissing Petition to Determine Incapacity and Fla. Stat. §744.331 Does Not Mandate Adjudicatory Hearing

Posted on February 21, 2016

In Gort v. Gort, 2016 Fla. App. LEXIS 1448 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016), the Fourth DCA held that because the guardianship and probate rules did not prohibit a party from voluntarily dismissing a petition to determine incapacity, and Section 744.331, Fla. Stat., did not mandate an adjudicatory hearing, the trial court did not err in finding the settlement agreement did not violate Florida law or public policy. In the subject case, older brother (“Petitioner”) petitioned to have his younger brother found incapacitated and for appointment of their cousin a limited guardian and emergency temporary guardian (ETG). Petitioner alleged that the younger brother (“Brother”) was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and suffers from auditory hallucinations and that he was incapable of exercising many rights including the right to contract. (“Brother”) opposed the petition along with their cousin (collectively “Appellants”).

The trial court entered an order setting an incapacity hearing, appointed counsel for Brother, and appointed a three-member examining committee. All three members found Brother was incapacitated and lacked the capacity to contract. Brother moved to substitute counsel, which the trial court granted. He denied he was incapacitated. Before the incapacity hearing, the parties went to mediation which resulted in a settlement agreement, in which Petitioner would dismiss his pending petitions without the need for prior court approval if Appellants would provide notice of Brother’s medical events, copies of his financial statements, and the deed to the brother’s house. They agreed to designate a neutral agency to evaluate Brother’s living situation every six months, and open lines of communication.

Over one year later, Petitioner filed an action against Brother in the probate division seeking a declaration that the settlement agreement was valid and enforceable. Brother responded by asserting affirmative defenses, and filing a counter-petition seeking to have the agreement declared invalid and unenforceable. Petitioner then moved for summary judgment. Brother admitted he had sought mental health treatment in 2012 and was estranged from Petitioner, but that he felt extremely vulnerable and pressured to sign the settlement agreement, fearing that he would be sent to a mental hospital otherwise. Brother complied with the agreement for some time, but stopped doing so in 2013 because he did not want  to have open communication with Petitioner. The trial court heard oral argument on the Petitioner’s motion for summary judgment in August 2014. At the court’s direction, the parties submitted supplemental authorities and proposed orders. The trial court adopted the Petitioner’s order, and entered summary judgment in his favor.

Appellants appealed to the Fourth DCA, arguing that the trial court erred in enforcing the settlement agreement because it was void under Florida law and public policy. Specifically, they argued that Petitioner could not voluntarily dismiss his petition without the statutorily required adjudicatory hearing on Brother’s incapacity, pursuant to Section 744.331(4), Fla. Stat. Appellants also argued that the Petitioner was estopped from arguing that Brother had the capacity to enter into the agreement because it was contrary to the allegations in his petition, and the examining committee found Brother lacked capacity.

Appellants argued that the Court’s decision in Jasser v. Saadeh, 97 So. 3d 241 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012), prohibited the voluntary dismissal of a petition prior to an adjudicatory hearing. However, the Court noted that Jasser was materially, factually distinguishable from the subject case. Moreover, in Jasser, the Court distinguished a voluntary dismissal from an agreed settlement and mutual dismissal and then discussed the importance of insuring that the person alleged to be incapacitated is protected. The Court did not hold that a person cannot voluntarily dismiss a petition once filed. In the subject case, Brother had a mental health disorder, which appeared controllable when properly medicated. Instead of proceeding with the adjudicatory hearing, the trial court sent the parties to mediation to resolve their dispute. They resolved it, and Brother did not complain about the settlement agreement until more than one year after dismissal of the petition to determine incapacity. Although three examining committee members concluded Brother lacked capacity to contract in June 2012, the reports were never considered at a formal adjudicatory hearing. There was never a trial court determination that Brother was incapacitated. Since Florida guardianship and probate rules do not prohibit a party from voluntarily dismissing a petition to determine incapacity, and Section 744.331, Fla. Stat., does not mandate an adjudicatory hearing, the trial court did not err in finding the settlement agreement did not violate Florida law or public policy.

Brother also argued that he signed the settlement agreement under the illegal and improper threat of being institutionalized, raising an issue of fact precluding summary judgment. The Court disagreed noting that as the trial court found, there was no evidence that the Petitioner exerted any improper or coercive conduct. This agreement was reached at a mediation where all parties were represented by counsel. Thus, the Court noted that the trial court correctly found this argument lacked merit.

Lastly, Appellants argued that the settlement agreement was unenforceable because it had no termination date. The trial court: (1) acknowledged the agreement did not contain a terminate date; (2) examined the agreement as a whole and the surrounding circumstances; and (3) determined the agreement did not contain unequivocal language necessary to interpret it as conferring infinite duration. The Court noted that when a contract does not contain an express statement as to duration, the court should determine the intent of the parties by examining the surrounding circumstances and by reasonably construing the agreement as a whole. City of Homestead v. Beard, 600 So. 2d 450, 453 (Fla. 1992). The general rule is that a contract which contains no express provision as to duration, or which is to remain in effect for an indefinite period of time, is not deemed to be perpetual, but instead may be terminated at will. Perri v. Byrd, 436 So. 2d 359, 361 (Fla. 1st DCA 1983). The facts giving rise to the petition to determine incapacity provided the reasonable interpretation that the settlement agreement was to terminate upon Brother’s death. Since the trial court did not err in concluding that the settlement agreement was enforceable as a matter of law and there was no genuine issue of material fact, the Fourth DCA affirmed the summary judgment in favor of Petitioner.

If you or anyone you know is in need of representation in actions involving Guardianship, Probate and/or Trust Disputes, or questions pertaining to such proceedings, please contact The Law Offices of Glenn M. Mednick, P.L., at (954) 315-1154 or gmednick@mednicklawgroup.com.

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