Binding a Minor to a Settlement

August 14, 2014 § 4 Comments

Minors can not act for themselves. That creates some obstacles when a minor is injured in an accident, and the insurance company or some other paying party needs a signature on a  release to settle the claim.

In Matter of Wilhite: Woolbright v. Wilhite, handed down September 10, 2013, by the COA, 18-year-old Lacey Wilhite had been severely injured in a catastrophic collision with a drunk driver. Her mother, Celeste Sloan, who had custody, filed a petition to be appointed guardian. Lacey’s father, Rodford, with whom Lacey had been living for several years before the accident, in response filed a petition to be appointed guardian and for custody.

The chancellor appointed Rodford as guardian, and authorized him to accept the insurance company’s tender of policy limits in the amount of $100,000. The judge also approved the contract of the attorney for Rodford for a 25% contingent fee. More about that attorney’s fee in a bit.

On appeal, Sloan’s lawyer argued that, even though her contract with Sloan had not been approved by the court, she had a reasonable expectation of compensation from the child’s estate, based on quantum meruit. The COA disagreed. Beginning at ¶11, Judge Fair explained:

Sloan may have been a “natural guardian” of Lacey under Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-13-1 (Rev. 2004), but the chancery court is the “superior guardian.” See Carpenter v. Berry, 58 So. 3d 1158, 1163 (¶19) (Miss. 2011). As the Mississippi Supreme Court detailed in Mississippi State Bar Association v. Moyo, 525 So. 2d 1289, 1293-96 (Miss. 1988), there are three ways to bind a minor in a settlement: (1) removal of the disability of minority, (2) the formal appointment of a guardian, and (3) the chancery court’s approval, without a guardianship, when the claim is worth $25,000 or less (Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-13-211 (Supp. 2012)). It stands to reason that a parent who has no authority to bind her daughter’s estate in a settlement cannot bind the estate to an attorney’s fee contract, particularly when such a contract would have to be, but was not, approved by the chancery court. See UCCR 6.12. In Carpenter, 58 So. 3d at 1163 (¶19) (citation omitted & emphasis added), the supreme court reiterated its longtime holding that:

Infants and persons of unsound mind are disabled under the law to act for themselves. Long ago it became the established rule for the court of chancery to act as the superior guardian for all persons under such disability. This inherent and traditional power and protective duty is made complete and irrefragable by the provisions of our present state constitution. It is not competent for the Legislature to abate the said powers and duties or for the said court to omit or neglect them. It is the inescapable duty of the said court and[/]or the chancellor to act with constant care and solicitude towards the preservation and protection of the rights of infants and persons non compos mentis. The court will take nothing as confessed against them; will make for them every valuable election; will rescue them from faithless guardians, designing strangers, and even from unnatural parents, and in general will and must take all necessary steps to conserve and protect the best interest of these wards of the court. The court will not and cannot permit the rights of an infant to be prejudiced by a waiver, or omission or neglect or design of a guardian, or of any other person, so far as within the power of the court to prevent or correct. All persons who deal with guardians or with courts in respect to the rights of infants are charged with the knowledge of the above principles, and act to the contrary thereof at their peril.

See also Union Chevrolet Co. v. Arrington, 162 Miss. 816, 826-27, 138 So. 593, 595 (1932) (original source) …

You can take away from that that there are no shortcuts in obtaining a release that is binding on a minor. You can either: (1) get the disabilities of minority removed, which you will likely find to be a hard sell; or (2) have a guardian appointed, who can petition the court to approve an on-the-record minor’s settlement; or (3) present the matter as a minor’s settlement not requiring a guardianship, if the settlement amount is below the statutory amount and the chancellor finds it to be in the child’s best interest. That’s it. The parents can not bind the child acting in their capacities as parents without court approval.

Another feature of this case is that both parents hired their own attorneys to take legal action for the benefit of Lacey before a guardianship was established, and neither had their contract approved in advance by the court. The trial court rejected Ms. Sloan’s attorney’s contract, which called for 33 1/3% of the settlement, and approved that of Mr. Wilhite for 25% The chancellor also reduced Sloan’s attorney’s quantum meruit claim to $2,500, despite that she claimed to have invested 125 hours in the case. The COA affirmed

You can read the COA’s rationale for yourself. What is important here is that you appreciate that when you go out on a limb without court approval in a case such as this, you run the risk of recovering nothing or a greatly reduced fee. UCCR 6.12 clearly lays out what is required. Here it is, broken down point by point for clarity:

  • Every petition by a fiduciary or attorney for the allowance of attorney’s fees for services rendered shall set forth the same facts as required in Rule 6.11, touching his compensation, and if so, the nature and effect thereof.
  • If the petition be for the allowance of fees for recovering damages for wrongful death or injury, or other claim due the estate, the petition shall show the total amount recovered, the nature and extent of the service rendered and expense incurred by the attorney, and the amount if any, offered in compromise before the attorney was employed in the matter.
  • In such cases, the amount allowed as attorney’s fees will be fixed by the Chancellor at such sum as will be reasonable compensation for the service rendered and expense incurred without being bound by any contract made with any unauthorized persons.
  • If the parties make an agreement for a contingent fee the contract or agreement of the fiduciary with the attorney must be approved by the Chancellor.
  • Fees on structured settlements shall be based on the “present cash value” of the claim. [Emphasis added]

Before you go crashing off into a case involving a minor’s interest, think through what you are being called on to do, and cover your bases. If you don’t, you might find, much to your chagrin, that you have donated a lot of free work to the youngster.

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§ 4 Responses to Binding a Minor to a Settlement

  • Nacholawyer says:

    I am curious as to why it was necessary to obtain approval at all in this case. As I understand it, section 93-19-13 removes the disability of all minors 18 or older to enter into binding contracts affecting personal property, including the right to settle a claim. Garret v. Gay 394 So. 321 (Miss. 1981) (unanimous decision holding 93-19-13 authorizes minors over 18 to execute binding releases for personal injury tort claims).

    • Larry says:

      I read Garrett v. Gay the way you do. In this case, however, there was need for a guardianship and an adult guardianship due to the disabling extent of the child’s injuries. In other words, the 18-YO needs to be competent.

  • John Cocke says:

    Enjoy your blog. Thanks for doing it. Seems like the judge should have approved one contingent fee and made the lawyers split it? John Cocke

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Larry says:

      I think the judge could have done that, but he opted to do what he did, which was within his discretion. I hope you continue to find the blog useful.

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