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Surrogate’s Court considered whether to enforce a settlement agreement made through alternative dispute resolution.Matter of Eckert 2022 NY Slip Op 50095(U)


When someone dies intestate in New York, it means they passed away without a valid will. In this situation, the New York’s laws step in to determine how the deceased person’s estate will be distributed. If the decedent has both a surviving spouse and a child, New York’s intestate succession laws come into play.

The surviving spouse receives the first $50,000 of the estate plus half of the remaining balance. The child, or children, inherit the other half of the remaining balance. This legal framework is designed to ensure that the surviving spouse is provided for, but it also recognizes the rights of the decedent’s children to a share of the estate.

Matter of Eckert, 2022 NY Slip Op 50095(U) revolves around the intestate estate of James Eckert, who passed away in 2018, sparking a legal dispute between his surviving child, Michelle Eckert, and his spouse, Tara Connelly. The conflict arose when Michelle Eckert contested the marriage’s validity and sought administration of the estate. Despite an initial agreement reached during an ADR session, a subsequent breakdown in negotiations led to Michelle Eckert filing a motion to enforce the settlement.

ADR in New York is a way to resolve legal conflicts outside of traditional court proceedings. It includes methods like mediation and arbitration, where a neutral third party helps parties reach agreements. ADR is often preferred for its efficiency and flexibility, allowing disputing parties to find common ground without a formal trial. In New York, ADR is encouraged by the courts, and parties may be referred to mediation or arbitration to promote quicker and less adversarial resolution of disputes. It’s a flexible and collaborative approach aimed at avoiding lengthy court battles.

Background Facts
When James Eckert passed away without a will, a legal tug-of-war ensued between his daughter, Michelle Eckert, and his wife, Tara Connelly. Both Michelle and Tara vied for control by filing petitions for letters of administration. The conflict took a contentious turn when Michelle questioned the legitimacy of her father’s marriage to Tara. This dispute expanded its scope to involve legal actions concerning non-probate retirement accounts linked to entities like John Hancock and Edward Jones Trust Company. The situation became more intricate as it entangled not only the complexities of intestacy but also the nuances of marital validity and the handling of non-probate financial assets, creating a multifaceted legal challenge for all parties involved. Michelle and Tara agreed to use Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).  During ADR the session, the parties reached a mutual verbal agreement. They agreed that Connelly would pay Eckert $515,000 to settle the matters in both Surrogate’s and Supreme Court. However, subsequent developments, including issues related to tax implications and the form of payment, led to a breakdown in the agreement, resulting in litigation over the enforcement of the settlement.  A temporary restraining order was issued to prevent Tara Connelly from using or modifying any assets derived from James Eckert while the court addressed the dispute.

The question before the court is whether to enforce the settlement agreement between Michelle Eckert and Tara Connelly over the intestate estate dispute.

The court grants Michelle Eckert’s motion to enforce the settlement, deeming the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against Tara Connelly moot. The court emphasizes the clarity, finality, and mutual accord of the settlement stipulation.

Settlement agreements, especially those reached through ADR, are typically favored by courts. For enforceability, they must meet certain criteria, such as adherence to CPLR 2104 and a clear indication of mutual agreement. Even though Connelly later shifted her stance on tax implications, the court considers the material terms of the settlement as established during the ADR session. This determination is supported by the email exchanges between the attorneys, which outline the key aspects of the agreement. The court emphasizes the importance of upholding settlements once they meet the necessary legal requirements.

The court’s decision enforces the settlement, emphasizing the importance of honoring negotiated agreements. The TRO remains in effect until the court’s order in response to this decision. The case underscores the significance of adhering to settlement terms and the need for clear communication during legal negotiations.

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