In the recent Texas appellate case of Maxey v. Maxey, a dispute occurred involving the probate of an estate in which two sisters mediated and reached a settlement agreement addressing the division of real property. The two sisters disagreed on how to divide property among several trusts and as a result initiated legal action against one another. Following mediation, the sisters entered into a settlement agreement to divide real estate. The parties then disagreed on what the settlement agreement meant and again initiated legal action against each other. The trial court ultimately found that the settlement agreement’s terms were ambiguous and submitted the meaning of an agreement to a jury. Following a jury trial, the losing sister appealed.
The court of appeals later reversed this decision and held that the settlement agreement was not ambiguous. The court instead found that language used was not reasonably susceptible to multiple meanings. Because the language in the settlement agreement was found not to be ambiguous, the court found that the jury should have determined the parties intent as a matter of law and did not need to rely on extrinsic evidence. Consequently, the court remanded the case back to trial court to construe the settlement agreement and properly divide the real estate.
When trusts and estate cases arise involving real estate, parties often must mediate and settle disputes. One of the valuable takeaways from the Maxey case is that it emphasizes that parties can enter into enforceable and unambiguous settlement agreements that divide real property provided that they create adequately detailed descriptions. Fortunately, besides stating property descriptions, there are also some other helpful steps that parties can follow to avoid trusts and estate planning contests or disputes.