A Florida Guardianship Can Be Dismissed Before Incapacity Hearing
The Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld a settlement agreement executed by an alleged incapacitated person prior to the hearing adjudicating that person’s incapacity. Florida courts have been presented with questions related to the dismissal of guardianship petitions, by settlement or otherwise, frequently of late.
In Gort and Forman v. Gort, 185 So. 3d 607 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016) there were competing petitions filed to determine Adam’s capacity, one by his brother William, the other by his cousin Lisa. Adam allegedly suffered from mental health issues, including auditory hallucinations and was purportedly diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
After a petition for incapacity is filed, Florida law requires a three-member examining committee to be appointed to examine the alleged incapacity person. Here, all three examining committee members found Adam lacked capacity. Each noted that Adam lacked the capacity to enter into contracts. Because of the competing incapacity petitions, the parties were ordered to attend mediation. A settlement was reached at mediation, and William and Lisa voluntarily dismissed their pending petitions for incapacity. Importantly, the settlement agreement was filed with the Court.
More than one year later, William sought a declaration from the court as to the validity of the settlement agreement. Adam, the alleged incapacitated person, submitted an affidavit and filed—together with Lisa—a counter petition seeking a court declaration that the settlement agreement was invalid and unenforceable. The affidavit stated, among things, that Adam was pressured to sign the settlement agreement; that he only signed to avoid placement in a state mental facility.
Summary judgment was entered in favor of William, confirming the validity of the settlement agreement. In its findings, the trial court ruled 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.”
Interpreting Fla. Stat. § 744.331, the Fourth District provided that, “when 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.”
To be sure, Florida guardianship law, codified in Chapter 744, Florida Statutes, does not expressly address whether a petition to determine incapacity may be voluntarily dismissed by the petitioner prior to an adjudicatory hearing. Florida guardianship law does state, however, that the court shall dismiss a petition if a majority of the examining committee members conclude that the person is not incapacitated. The silence noted above exists when the voluntary dismissal occurs after the examining committee finds the person incapacitated but before an adjudicatory hearing by the court on the issue of capacity.
The Florida appellate court held that:
Because our guardianship and probate rules do not prohibit a party from voluntarily dismissing a petition to determine incapacity, and [Fla Stat. §] 744.331 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.
This decision is helpful because it allows the parties an opportunity to resolve a guardianship dispute at mediation without the one-sided finality that comes with a judgment at a hearing or trial. By permitting one or more parties the ability to dismiss a petition without a requirement that a hearing take place, the parties can work out their differences.
If you are involved in a contested guardianship proceeding, or contemplating filing a petition to determine incapacity, please contact Brian Spiro and the Florida guardianship attorneys at Comiter, Singer, Baseman & Braun, LLP at (561) 626-2101 or toll-free (800) 226-1484.