Voluntary dismissal or settlement of a guardianship proceeding has been a hotly debated issue in Florida guardianship practice. In Forman v. Gort, recently decided by the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal, a settlement agreement entered into by an alleged incapacitated person prior to a hearing on incapacity was upheld.
In Forman v. Gort, William petitioned to have his brother Adam declared incapacitated and for the appointment of an emergency temporary guardian. Adam suffered from some mental health issues, including schizophrenia and hallucinations. Adam opposed William’s petition. Adam’s cousin, Lisa, petitioned to determine Adam’s capacity and to be appointed guardian.
As required by Florida Statute, an examining committee was appointed. All three examining committee members found that Adam was incapacitated and lacked capacity to contract. The Florida guardianship court ordered the parties to mediation prior to an incapacity hearing. The parties reached a settlement. William and Lisa agreed to dismiss the pending petitions to determine incapacity. Adam and Lisa agreed to keep William updated as to Adam’s status and included terms in the settlement agreement to keep the lines of communication open between the brothers. Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the pending petitions were voluntarily dismissed. The settlement agreement was filed with the court.
Over a year later, William filed an action against Adam and Lisa, seeking a declaration from the court that the settlement agreement was valid and enforceable. Adam submitted an affidavit essentially outlining that his life has improved since the settlement agreement, that he did not want communication with his brother, and that he felt pressured to sign the settlement agreement, fearing that he might be institutionalized if he did not sign.
The Florida probate court entered summary judgment in favor of William, finding in part that it “was not improper for the parties to enter into the settlement agreement after a petition to determine incapacity had been filed but before an adjudicatory hearing because there is no requirement for an adjudicatory hearing every time a petition is filed.”
Adam and Lisa appealed the summary judgment order. They argued that the settlement agreement was void under Florida law and public policy because the petition for incapacity could not be dismissed without the statutorily required adjudicatory hearing on incapacity.
The Florida appellate court upheld the summary judgment. Incapacity proceedings are controlled by statute. Section 744.331, Florida Statutes (2012) provides that:
[W]hen a petition to determine incapacity is filed, a court must appoint an attorney to represent the alleged incapacitated person, and within five days of the petition, the court shall appoint an examining committee of three members to examine the alleged incapacitated person, all of whom are to file their reports with the court.
The statute also provides that the court shall dismiss a petition if the examining committee members conclude that the person is not incapacitated. But, the Florida statute is silent on whether a court is required to hold an adjudicatory hearing every time a petition is filed, and is also silent on whether a party may voluntarily dismiss a petition to determine incapacity.
Adam argued to the Florida appellate court that Jasser_v_Saadeh, 97 So. 3d 241 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012) prohibits the voluntary dismissal of a petition prior to adjudicatory hearing. In Jasser, an emergency temporary guardian (ETG) was appointed for an alleged incapacitated person, Saadeh, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in danger of financial abuse. Saadeh’s rights were delegated to an ETG. The court did not make a formal determination of incapacity. After the ETG’s appointment, an agreed order was submitted to the court by the ETG’s attorney and Saadeh’s court-appointed attorney to “settle” the guardianship. Saadeh was required to execute a trust, and all pending incapacity proceedings were dismissed. Saadeh petitioned to revoke the trust he had been required to execute by the agreed order, arguing that he lacked legal capacity to enter it. The Florida probate court granted summary judgment in his favor, because all of Saadeh’s legal rights had been transferred to the ETG at the time the trust was executed. The Florida appellate court upheld the summary judgment.
The Florida appellate court distinguished the instant case from Jasser. In this case, Adam was not suffering from Alzheimers, but instead from a mental health disorder which appears controllable when he is properly medicated. Adam did not complain about the settlement agreement until over a year after dismissal of the petition to determine incapacity. Also, the examining reports were never considered at a formal adjudicatory hearing, and there was no trial court determination that Adam was incapacitated. The Florida appellate court found that:
Because our guardianship and probate rules do not prohibit a party from voluntarily dismissing a petition to determine incapacity, and section 744.311 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.
The dissenting opinion urged that once an examining committee has been appointed, a petition for determination of incapacity cannot be voluntarily dismissed by a petitioner unless a majority of the examining committee finds that the alleged incapacitated person is not incapacitated. This is for the protection of the alleged incapacitated person, who could actually be incompetent and lack the ability to enter into a valid settlement agreement.