Interpretation of Settlement Agreements
A recent decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench highlights the importance of carefully reviewing settlement agreements prior to their execution.
In Anderson Estate (Re), 2020 ABQB 428, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench revisited a settlement that had been negotiated during a judicial mediation.
Mr. Anderson had left a Last Will and Testament executed roughly one month prior to his death that directed that the residue of his estate be distributed to his three children, who were the parties to the litigation. The Will addressed certain advances made to his children during his lifetime, the disposition of real property, and declared the testator’s intent that the parties be treated equally.
One son, who later brought the motion with respect to the interpretation of the agreement, had previously disclaimed real property gifted to him under the Will because the value assigned to the property in the Will itself was significantly higher than the appraised value of the property (with a discrepancy of $2 million), such that he would take a correspondingly lower distribution from the residue of the estate to reflect his acceptance of the gifted property. The judicial mediation process had been initiated with the intention of resolving interpretation issues in respect of the Will arising from the son’s disclaimer of the property. The terms of the Will and the settlement agreement were not straightforward, but the settlement provided in part that the son would receive at a value of $4 million a different property than that bequeathed to him under the Will that he had disclaimed.
Pursuant to the terms of the settlement agreement, the matter returned to the case management judge for the determination of its proper interpretation. The son sought an interpretation of the agreement that provided that he had substituted his receipt of one property for the other at a notional cost corresponding to advances tied to the first property.
Justice Jones reviewed the law in general relating to ambiguities appearing in contracts, such as the settlement agreement that the parties had executed (at paragraphs 35 through 40, briefly summarized below):
- true legal ambiguity arises where a phrase is reasonably susceptible on its face to more than one meaning;
- courts can consider surrounding circumstances that include everything that affected the language of the document from the perspective of a reasonable person;
- extrinsic evidence, however, is intended to serve “as an objective interpretative aid to determine the meaning of the words the parties used”, with limitations set out by the Alberta Court of Appeal in Hole v Hole, 2016 ABCA 34;
- the goal of the courts is to give effect to the objective intentions of the parties, rather than to “second-guess the contract”;
- even in the absence of ambiguity, a judge is to consider relevant surrounding circumstances in interpreting the contract.
The judge found that the settlement agreement was not susceptible to more than one meaning, stating as follows (at para 84):
A retrospective determination that one entered into an agreement on terms less commercially favourable that one now thinks should have prevailed does not evidence ambiguity.
This decision may serve as a reminder to take care in ensuring that the meaning of a settlement agreement is properly understood by all parties and clearly set out without room for ambiguity. Remaining silent on certain points that should properly be addressed during the dispute resolution process may limit the rights of the parties to pursue them, even where the settlement agreement will otherwise lead to the distribution of an estate that may be perceived as unfair.
Thank you for reading.