Court Annuls Jury Trial, Determines Settlement Agreement Dividing Trust-Owned Real Estate Was Unambiguous | Winstead PC
In Maxey vs. Maxey, in an estate probate dispute, two sisters negotiated and reached a settlement agreement regarding the division of certain real estate. No. 01-19-00078-CV, 2020 Tex. App. LEXIS 10281 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] December 29, 2020, no pets. the story). The two sisters disagreed on how they would divide assets between certain trusts and they sued each other. After mediation, they reached a settlement agreement which sought to divide the real estate. Then the parties disagreed on the meaning of the settlement agreement and sued each other again for breach of the agreement. The trial court found the settlement agreement to be ambiguous and put the meaning of the agreement to a jury. After the jury trial, the court ruled on the verdict, and the losing sister appealed.
The appeals court reversed and ruled that the settlement agreement was unambiguous:
We disagree with the trial court that the settlement agreement is ambiguous. The settlement agreement identifies the Marble Falls property, provides that it is to be divided so that Mary’s trust receives a parcel worth half the value of the entire property and the Carolyn’s trust to receive a parcel worth half the value of the entire property, and further provides that Mary’s trust shall receive the “50% West” and Carolyn’s trust the “50% % East “. As Mary argues, this language is clear and can have a precise meaning: the sisters agreed that the Marble Falls property should be divided into two parcels, of equal value, and that Mary would receive the western parcel and Carolyn the eastern parcel. This language is not reasonably capable of more than one meaning. Insofar as the trial court held that the settlement agreement was ambiguous because it was silent on the precise manner in which the Marble Falls property was to be divided and did not establish the boundaries and boundaries for the two specific plots, we note that our fraternal courts have repeatedly held that ambiguity in contract wording is not to be confused with silence. There is ambiguity when the intention of the parties is expressed in language capable of more than one meaning. On the other hand, when a contract is silent, the question “is not to interpret the language but rather to determine its effect”. Courts cannot and will not rewrite contracts to insert provisions that the parties could have included, but did not, and which are not essential to the construction of the language of the contract.
The fact that the Settlement Agreement did not specify, by way of bounds or otherwise, how Carolyn was to divide the Marble Falls property does not render the wording of the Settlement Agreement ambiguous. The agreement provided that the property was to be divided into two lots of equal value, with Mary receiving the west lot and Carolyn receiving the east lot. As we have argued, this language can be given a certain and definite legal meaning, and it is not susceptible of more than one reasonable interpretation. We therefore conclude that the Settlement Agreement is not ambiguous.
We conclude that, because the wording of the settlement agreement is unambiguous, the trial court – not the jury – should have determined the intent of the parties at law, “and it could not do so in s relying on extrinsic evidence to create an intention that the contract itself does not express. We therefore believe that the trial court made a reversible error in finding that the settlement agreement was ambiguous, in admitting and in directing the jury to consider the oral evidence regarding whether the parties intended to divide the Marble Falls property according to the Brookes Baker inquest, and submitting question number one to the jury.
ID. The court therefore sent the case back to the trial court to interpret the settlement agreement and properly divide the real estate. The court also quashed and returned the prevailing party’s request for specific performance.
Interesting note: Parties in trust and estate matters often have to arbitrate and settle disputes involving real estate interests. When the parties agree on undivided interests, this is often not a problem. For example, the parties often agree to divide the undivided interests in the mining domains so that they can each have the same chance of having a productive well. However, undivided interests in the surface realms rarely settle disputes and only generate future confrontations. Thus, parties generally wish to have shared interests in surface properties. Without having a surveyor on the property while mediation is being conducted, parties are often challenged to create descriptions of the boundaries and boundaries of real property tracks. The parties and their attorneys worry about whether the settlement agreement will be enforceable when they don’t have specific descriptions of the leads. This case is very good because it shows that the parties can reach binding and unambiguous settlement agreements that divide the real estate where they provide as much description as possible (short of meters and limits) of how to divide the property .