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Settlement agreements in probate litigation should be specific

There are two basic types of legal standards that are used when litigating legal issues: statutory law and case law. Statutory law consists of the laws passed by legislatures, be they federal or state, and signed by the executive; i.e. the president or governor. Case law, on the other hand, is comprised of the accumulated interpretations of courts, especially appellate courts, of the statutes on which the law is based as applied to certain real-life situations.

Because no statute can take every possibility into account and remain simple enough to be useful, judges must, at times, determine the outcome of disputes using reasoning based upon statutory law and legal precedent from previous cases. One such case that was decided last month by the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal affects the way settlement agreements in probate litigation cased are handled.

The case, known as Sugar v. Estate of Stern, dealt with several heirs of a large estate wrangling about amounts to be paid out into the estate. Without diving into the minutiae of the case, which is rather complex, there was a settlement agreement signed by the parties in 2011 that was supposed to settle the case. However, a bank account containing funds from a foreign country was allegedly not disclosed at that time, and several parties wanted that money disgorged to the estate. However, the court found that because the settlement agreement did not specify the representations made by the parties in writing, though it alluded to some being made, such representations were not evidenced, because the content of oral settlement negotiations are privileged, and not admissible in probate court.

The upshot of this case is that settlement agreements in probate litigation cases need to be drafted to be as specific as possible with regard to its terms and the representations of the parties on which it is based. As such negotiations can get complicated, anyone facing such litigation may wish to consult an experienced Florida estate planning attorney.

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