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.
Mediation, with plenary sessions, small break-out rooms for parties and their counsel, and a mediator shuttling between the rooms seem like a distant, archaic memory. The former format of mediation is the antithesis of social distancing.
(I find it hard to now watch a tv show or movie without thinking to myself, “That’s not very good social distancing.”)
However, the show, litigation and mediations, must go on. Welcome to the age of virtual mediation.
Programs such as Zoom allow for parties to meet and discuss ideas and resolve differences without being physically in the same room. While the virtual alternative is not perfect, it is workable.
With Zoom, there are a few ways for mediations to be accommodated. One option is for the organizer to set up several online meetings: one to be used as a plenary session where everyone has access, and one for each of the parties to the litigation. In the plenary room, all of the parties and their counsel can join. In the parties’ separate room, only the party and their counsel can participate, with the mediator joining and leaving as necessary.
Another option is for the organizer to set up one meeting. The organizer would be able to admit participants into the meeting room, or put them into a virtual “waiting room” while others remain in the meeting room.
Another consideration when organizing a Zoom mediation is to ensure that the organizer has a Pro account or better. While the Basic account is free, it only allows for meetings of 40 minutes or less. The Pro account, at $20 per month per host, allows for meetings of up to 24 hours, which should probably enough for most mediations. (Some mediators are slow mediators: you know who you are.)
Some reporting services are offering virtual mediation assistance. Neesons, for example, can offer extensive technical support for mediations, examinations and arbitrations. They have also hosted a number of presentations on virtual examinations, arbitrations and mediations. Contact them if you want more information.
(Fun fact: Zoom Video was trading at $68.04 on December 31, 2019. On March 23, 2020, it was trading at $159.56. As of the time of writing this (April 2, 2020), share prices had relaxed to $118.10.)
Thank you for reading. Stay healthy. Practice safe litigation.
With the enactment of Rule 75.1 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, those involved in disputes relating to an estate, trust or substitute decision-making matter in Toronto, Ottawa or the County of Essex are referred to mediation unless there is a court order exempting it under Rule 75.1.04.
As lawyers, “mediation” is a term we are familiar with. However it may not be as familiar to clients. Many of them may have never heard of “mediation” before. As such, if you or a client have an upcoming mediation, it is important to prepare early to avoid being caught off guard during the mediation.
What is Mediation?
Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution where people can settle their disputes outside of court. It is a voluntary process in which the parties meet with a neutral third-party (referred to as the “mediator”) who provides them with assistance in negotiating a settlement. The mediator does not impose a judgment as the process is led by the parties.
Mediation vs. Litigation
The big “pull factor” to mediation is that it vastly differs from litigation. The major differences include:
- Decision-Making: With mediation, the parties decide the outcome but with litigation, a judge imposes his or her decision upon the parties
- Private vs. Public Process: Mediation is a private and confidential process, whereas litigation is a public process
- Costs: The costs of mediation are typically lower than that of litigation
- Time: The mediation process tends to be faster than litigation
- Adversarial vs. Non-Adversarial: Mediation is viewed as a non-adversarial process, whereas litigation is viewed as an adversarial process
Preparation for Mediation
Preparation for mediation should start well in advance of the mediation date.
Preparing the Client
Start by explaining to the client what mediation is and how the process works. Assure the client that the mediator will be a neutral facilitator and that abusive behaviour by the other party will not be tolerated.
As part of discussing the mediation process with the client, let the client know about the time commitment that mediation entails. The mediation could last the entire day or even multiple days.
Determine the client’s interests and goals for the mediation. Are they looking to settle the case at mediation or are they prepared to go to trial? What types of offers would they be willing to accept?
Preparation for the Lawyer
Know the mediator’s background and approach beforehand. Is the mediator someone who has a background in estates law? Are they a lawyer? Are they a former judge? Knowing the answers to these questions can help the lawyer determine what approach would be the most beneficial to employ during mediation.
Prepare a comprehensive mediation brief and send it to the opposing counsel and mediator well in advance of the hearing date. A comprehensive mediation brief can maximize a lawyer’s presentation at the mediation. It is helpful to include copies of all relevant documents, such as the wills in question, within the brief. Additionally, it might be helpful to include a chronology of events as a schedule to the mediation brief.
If the mediation results in a settlement, ensure that the terms of the settlement are formally documented and that each client has signed the document. In some cases, however, a “cooling-off period” of one or two days from the proposed settlement might be necessary.
At the end of the day, the best approach a lawyer can take in preparing for mediation is to know the mediator, prepare their documents ahead of time and provide the client with as much information about the mediation process as possible. The more prepared the lawyer and the client are, the smoother the mediation will go.
For more information on preparing your client for an estate mediation, visit this link.
Thanks for reading,
Ian Hull & Celine Dookie
In the estates regime, mediations occur regularly, particularly in Toronto, where mediations are a mandatory part of the litigation, in accordance with Rule 75.1.02(1)(a)(i) of the Rules of Civil Procedure.
A mediation is always an opportunity to attempt to settle a matter without resorting to costly and time consuming litigation. At mediation, the parties will each stay in separate rooms and the mediator (that is usually chosen by the parties to the litigation), will shuttle between the rooms seeking a more in-depth understanding of the parties’ positions as well as probing opportunities for settlement. Sometimes, before the mediation begins, the mediator will do an introduction to all the parties before they break off into separate rooms, explaining how the day will go.
An important aspect of mediation is the fact that a mediator has no decision-making power. He or she cannot force the parties to settle but can provide his or her opinion on the issues. As such, settlement at mediation can only be reached upon the agreement of the parties themselves.
Another means of dispute resolution (other than litigation) that is not often resorted to in estate litigation, is arbitration. Before agreeing to attend an arbitration, however, it is important to consider whether this form of dispute resolution would be helpful in the particular circumstances of the matter.
Arbitration, unlike mediation, is an adversarial dispute resolution process (similar to litigation) determined and controlled by a neutral third party. The arbitrator can make a final decision, called an “award”, contrary to a mediator, who cannot. The most significant aspect of arbitration, however, is that the courts generally do not interfere in a dispute that is subject to an arbitration agreement. As such, there is a risk that should a decision be made by an arbitrator, the court would then refuse to hear the matter further, leaving arbitration as the ultimate medium of resolving the particular matter.
Why is that so important?
In a situation where the parties have already engaged in settlement negotiations and there appears to be a gap between their respective positions, an arbitration may be worthwhile to pursue, particularly should litigation be untenable to the parties given the cost involved and/or if the matter in dispute does not involve a lot of money. In such a situation, a final arbitral award may bring finality and allow the parties to move on, particularly if the gap between the parties’ positions is not significant.
If, however, the parties had not yet engaged in negotiations and no offers to settle were made, pursuing arbitration may be a serious gamble. That is so because the issues to be arbitrated are set out by the parties and though the arbitration process is similar to traditional litigation, the arbitrator will not have an opportunity to hear all the relevant evidence. As a result, agreeing to arbitrate in a situation like that may cause prejudice to a client who may then not be able to appeal the “award” made by an arbitrator, outside of the regime put in place by the Arbitration Act, 1991, SO 1991, c 17.
Thanks for reading!
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As lawyers, whether we are dealing with opposing parties, clients, or colleagues, we are often faced with having to say no at some point. Viewed as a negative response, the effect of saying no often leads to damaged or strained relationships.
Below is a brief overview of the rules that Mr. Latz espouses:
Rule #1 – Information is Key – at the outset it is important to determine your goals and then develop an information bargaining strategy. Ways to get and share information should be considered. Obtaining information is key before providing any response.
Rule #2 – Understand the Meaning of No – before saying no, Mr. Latz suggests that you consider the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Referred to as ‘BATNA’, this is widely used in negotiation theory to think about what your plan B is. Mr. Latz further suggests that, at this time, steps should be taken to strengthen this plan.
Rule #3 – Explain your No with Fair Objective Criteria – if you are going to say no, explain why. This should be based on fair and objective criteria such as market-value, precedent, professional standards, or tradition.
Rule #4 – Combine your No with a ‘Yesable’ Offer – Mr. Latz suggest that you design an offer-concession strategy. Considerations should be had to the timing of making such an offer.
Rule #5 – Control the Setting – if you are going to say no, consider the importance of the setting on the relationship. For instance, there may be value in having a face to face discussion as opposed to over the telephone.
Of course, this is just an overview of the issues Mr. Latz discussed. I encourage you to visit Mr. Latz’s website at www.negotiationinstitute.com for more information.
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Estate planning can be tricky enough without some of the other issues often associated with aging – the need for care, moving homes, declining mental capacity, or the death of a spouse. Elder mediation – a specialized form of mediation that goes beyond mediation training and experience to include issues specifically related to the elderly – now has a presence in Canada after gaining a strong foothold in the United States.
The elder mediation specialty recognizes that conflicts often come to the surface as parents age and key decisions – such as those relating to ongoing health care, estate planning, and the upkeep and use of assets like cottages and vacation homes – need to be made.
How would you and your family cope when an elder member of your family enters a transition stage? Two U.S. elder mediators have identified four categories of families in how they handle a major elder transition:
- Graceful transitions – the family successfully manages old age and its transitions through targeted planning and effective communication, along with good legal and financial advice. Even as elders experience their inevitable physical decline, family members manage this process with dignity and respect.
- Successful struggles – the family has one or two major issues to work through but manages to come to a positive outcome with the support of friends, family and advisors.
- Quietly bruised – the family may be unable to move forward with important decisions and are living with situations that leave an aging parent in peril and increase emotional, financial and safety risks. There is often a sense of discomfort with choices made, and there may be disagreements festering under the surface about care giving, housing or inheritance decisions.
- Litigious – things have gone from bad to worse, and there is either the threat of litigation or actual litigation required to get decisions made. Wounds abound, and relationships are often destroyed forever between some family members.
You can find the full article here: http://www.mediationinstitute.net/training/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/MediationinEstatePlanningandElderCare.pdf
Elder mediation isn’t required in most family situations, but if either of the last two categories of family seem familiar, it’s a process well worth considering. Family Mediation Canada has more information on elder mediation in this country: http://www.fmc.ca/elder-mediation
Thank you for reading!
Last week, the family of Martin Luther King Jr. settled a dispute surrounding two cherished family artifacts: the late reverend’s personal travelling bible and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal. King’s three surviving children—Martin, Dexter, and Bernice—disagreed about whether or not to sell these treasured items. The two brothers, who wanted to sell to a private buyer, outvoted their sister, who had possession of the items and wished to keep them in the family. Former President Jimmy Carter acted as the mediator in the case.
Sadly, this kind of case is far too common. We have written about such “family wars” several times. Of course, no two family disputes will be exactly the same; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Individual personalities and family dynamics as well as the significance of the issues in dispute make each family dispute different. The facts in this case are unusual because of the particular items in dispute. This family bible is significant not only to the family, but also to American history. The bible at issue was used by President Barack Obama during his inauguration in 2013. As well, not every family will have a former U.S. President act as mediator.
On the other hand, the themes represented in this case often arise in family disputes, no matter how celebrated or obscure the family. Here, the brothers desired to sell because the Estate needed the money. Bernice, however, could not conceive of selling her father’s cherished possessions. Conflict between sentimentality and more material considerations often fuel estate disputes.
As we have discussed before, it important for a lawyer to recognize the role of passion and sentimentality in estates disputes. Feelings should not be the sole driving force in litigation. As well, communication is the most effective tool to avoid estate litigation. Testators should speak to their families, particularly their children, about their wishes and the terms of their will, to avoid surprises and hurt feelings.
Thank you for reading.
This week on Hull on Estates, Natalia Angelini and Umair Abdul Qadir discuss the new Rule 75.2 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 75.2 provides the Court with the authority to order a mediation in certain estate litigation matters even when mandatory mediation under Rule 75.1 does not apply, and came into force on January 1, 2016.
Should you have any questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on our blog.
Estate litigation often involves not only financial, but emotional issues. Among the most common disagreements are those between family members, whether amongst siblings, or between siblings and a surviving spouse. In some cases, the parties cannot get along and they may require that the Court determine the matter in dispute. However, there are also situations where the disagreement can be worked out between the two sides, such as through an Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) process like mediation, without the extra time and expense that comes with a Court proceeding.
Another form of ADR used primarily in the family law context is Collaborative Family Law (“CFL”). CFL is structured in a series of four-way meetings between the parties and their lawyers. There is no mediator, arbitrator, or judge present, so CFL requires a high level of trust between the lawyers and clients. Candidates for this collaborative approach to dispute resolution are often parties who still get along reasonably well, and who are willing to cooperate with one another.
Based on the frequently emotional and familial aspects of estate litigation, it seems that CFL, or a form of CFL, could be applicable in the estates context. Back in 2010, as noted by this prior blog post, there seemed to be some interest in applying the CFL model to estate Law. This article in Canadian Lawyer from later that same year discussed why collaborative estate law didn’t seem to be catching on.
One of the key features of CFL that seems to make it unattractive in estate law is that, if after the series of four-way meetings, the parties cannot agree between themselves, they must start from scratch. The lawyers who participated in CFL cannot continue to represent the same client in court proceedings. All information produced in the CFL process has to be reproduced, including financial statements, expert reports, appraisals, etc. Although the best case scenario in CFL involves saving money as well as preserving relationships, the worst case scenario could possibly involve additional expenses and harm to relationships in any event.
However, perhaps the clause that restricts a lawyer from staying on the file after unsuccessful meetings could be removed, or at least modified. One possibility considered is to disqualify only the individual lawyer who worked on the file, and not the entire firm. This may make it more accessible to parties who would otherwise be good candidates for resolving their problem in a collaborative way, as opposed to an adversarial one.
Thank you for reading.
In my recent post, To Litigate or To Mediate, I discussed the benefits of participating in mediation at the early stages of litigation.
Today, I’d like to discuss some of the mistakes commonly made by lawyers when preparing for and attending mediation. From my experience, each of the following mistakes can dramatically impact the likelihood of achieving a successfully mediated resolution.
(1) Choosing the wrong mediator – a mediator’s knowledge, experience, and approach to the dispute can have a significant impact on the outcome of the mediation. As such, it is important to choose a mediator that has considerable knowledge and experience relevant to your dispute
(2) Failing to prepare the mediator – a mediator who has a thorough understanding of the facts, issues and positions of the parties will be better placed to assist the parties in reaching a settlement. To assist the mediator in this regard, each party should provide the mediator with a mediation brief outlining the facts, issues and the law they feel are relevant prior to the mediation.
(3) Arriving unprepared for the mediation – to make the most of the mediation each side should arrive prepared. Counsel for each side should have a command of the facts, the law and a considered plan for approaching the session. Also, it is important not to forget a calculator and any relevant documents, including court orders.
(4) Failing to prepare the client – if your client understands the purpose of the mediation, the strengths and weaknesses of his or her case and how the mediation is expected to unfold, he or she will be better placed to achieve more at the session.
(5) A lack of commitment to resolve the dispute – Rule 75.1 of the Rules of Civil Procedure requires that parties to any estate dispute commenced in Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor, submit to mandatory mediation prior to attending court for a trial. Unfortunately, this can result in parties attending mediation, not because they wish to settle the dispute, but rather because they have been ordered by the court to attend. The mediation should be approached, by both sides, with a commitment to resolve the dispute.
(6) Failing to listen to the other side – listen to the other side to identify their interests, perceptions and motivations. Doing so is extremely useful for generating options to settle the dispute.
(7) Failing to set aside sufficient time for the mediation – while there will often be significant downtime during the session, it is important to set aside sufficient time for the parities to thoughtfully consider a range of options and positions. A settlement is significantly less likely to occur if the parties run out of time or feel rushed into making a decision.
(8) Failing to ensure all the necessary parties attend – to get the most out of any mediated session all relevant parties should be present, however, it is essential for the person(s) with settlement authority to attend the mediation. If the individuals attending do not have authority to settle the dispute, no agreement will be finalized at the session.
(9) Failing to ensure the settlement is properly documented – any agreement reached by the parties at the mediation will be non-binding unless and until reduced to a written agreement that is signed by all the parties. A draft settlement agreement can be prepared by counsel prior to attending mediation, such that agreed terms can be finalized efficiently prior to the close of the mediation session.
While mediation can be a challenging process to navigate, it has the potential to result in a viable and effective settlement. By avoiding these common pitfalls you can significantly increase your chances of reaching a successfully mediated settlement.
Thank you for reading,