December 3, 2014

Bresky Law Obtains Affirmance of Order Ruling that Obligation in Property Settlement Agreement Did Not Apply to Non-Probate Assets

Bresky Law, with appellate co-counsel and trial counsel Amy Beller, recently obtained a per curiam affirmance of a trial court order in our client’s favor in a dispute over the interpretation of language in a property settlement agreement (“Agreement”). The Decedent entered into the Agreement as part of the dissolution of his marriage. In the Agreement, the Decedent agreed to leave fifty percent of his estate by will to the Appellants. The Agreement also stated: “Except as provided in this agreement, each party may dispose of his or her property in any way.”

The Decedent’s Will left 50% of his probate estate to the Appellants in compliance with the Agreement. However, a significant amount of assets passed outside of probate to the Appellees at the Decedent’s death. The Appellants sued, arguing that the Agreement’s language required the Decedent to leave one-half of all of his property to them. The trial court found that the Agreement was unambiguous and applied only to assets that passed by Decedent’s Will, and an appeal ensued.

On appeal, we argued that the Appellants’ construction of the Agreement was contrary to the Agreement’s plain language and would require the insertion of additional language into the Agreement that was not there. We pointed out that the Agreement imposed no contractual obligation on the Decedent to arrange for one-half of his non-probate assets to pass into his probate estate in the way Appellants contended. The Agreement’s use of the term “by Will” limited the scope of the Decedent’s obligation to assets that passed under the Decedent’s will. Thus, the words “by Will” in this context required a finding that “estate” means “probate estate.” We also argued that, as to certain non-probate assets, the Appellants’ position conflicted with Florida case law holding that, absent specific language to the contrary in a property settlement agreement, the beneficiary designation in the other document (such as an IRA) controls.

The Fourth DCA issued a per curiam affirmance of the trial court’s decision. This ruling from the appellate court preserves the positive result our client obtained in the probate court.