Can You Have an Heirship Determination if There is a Will?

Can You Have an Heirship Determination if There is a Will?

Heirship Proceedings in Texas

The Texas Estates Code provides that the probate court

“may conduct a proceeding to declare heirship when…a person dies intestate owning or entitled to property in this state and there has been no administration in this state of the person’s estate.” §202.002(1).

That section came into play in a case decided by the Amarillo court of appeals, 07-21-00137-CV.

Facts

In the case, a sister, Wanda, filed her brother’s will for probate, which left his property to her. She claimed that he lived in New Mexico but was domiciled in Texas. The will was admitted to probate, but the estate was never closed. Almost two years after the will was admitted to probate, a woman, Ginger, filed a bill of review claiming that she was the brother’s common-law wife and asked the trial court to determine the brother’s heirs. Ginger claimed that she was a pretermitted spouse under New Mexico law and that New Mexico law applied because the brother/husband lived in New Mexico.

Wanda filed a motion to dismiss the claim because the brother left a will, and she claimed that the court could not have an heirship determination if the decedent had a will, relying on §202.002(1). The trial court agreed and dismissed Ginger’s claims.

Appeal

When Ginger appealed, the court of appeals reversed and sent the case back to the trial court to hear Ginger’s claims. The appeals court ruled that §202.002(1) did say that a person had to die intestate before an heirship determination could be heard, but the additional language “and there has been no administration in this state of the person’s estate” made an exception for Ginger to have an heirship determination. Wanda cited a Texas Supreme Court which dismissed an heirship determination, but the appeals court noted that the administration had been closed in that case, it had not been closed in this case.

What Could Have Done

If Wanda had closed the case, would that have helped? There are reasons to leave an estate open, but in this case, if Wanda knew Ginger was around and might do something, it would have been better to close the estate.

Bill of Review

Bill of Review

Bills of Review in Texas

When a case doesn’t turn out the way you want in the trial court, you appeal to the court of appeals. But what can you do if you didn’t know about the case or didn’t learn of a trial setting until an appeal was too late? A bill of review allows you to bring the problem to court. Texas has two types of bills of review, an equitable bill of review and a statutory bill of review. The difference between the two was highlighted in a recent case.

In Gill v. Bordokas, 14-21-00356-CV. from the Houston 14th court of appeals, a man died intestate. One of his daughters filed an application to determine heirship where she alleged that he was not married and that she and her siblings were his only heirs. Within the time allowed, a woman filed a motion for new trial claiming that she was the common-law wife of the man. The woman did not request a hearing and the motion for new trial was eventually overruled by operation of law. Seventeen months later, she filed a statutory bill of review asking the court to overturn its order on heirship. The judge denied the bill noting that she did not pursue her motion for new trial when she could have. The alleged common-law wife appealed.

Equitable Bill of Review

The appeals court first discussed the court’s holding that the woman was not diligent. It listed the requirements for an equitable bill of review which requires diligence.

To obtain an equitable bill of review, a petitioner must generally plead and prove the following three elements: (1) the petitioner has a meritorious claim or defense to the judgment; (2) the petitioner was prevented from making that claim or defense because of official mistake or because of the opposing party’s fraud, accident, or wrongful conduct; and (3) the petitioner’s inability to make the claim or defense was unmixed with any fault or negligence on the petitioner’s own part...When cases involving res judicata have arisen in the context of an equitable bill of review, there is normally a failure by the petitioner to satisfy one of these three elements.

However, the court stated that the alleged common-law wife filed a statutory bill of review, not an equitable one.

Statutory Bill of Review

But this case involves a statutory bill of review, which Gill sought under Section 55.251 of the Texas Estates Code. That statute provides that “an interested person may, by a bill of review filed in the court in which the probate proceedings were held, have an order or judgment rendered by the court revised and corrected on a showing of error in the order or judgment, as applicable.” See Tex. Est. Code § 55.251(a); see also Tex. Est. Code § 22.029 (defining “probate proceedings” as “a matter or proceeding relating to a decedent’s estate,” which includes a determination of heirship). By its plain language, this statute authorizes a bill of review in a probate proceeding merely upon “a showing of error,” without the other elements required by an equitable bill of review. Thus, a petitioner in a probate proceeding can obtain this statutory bill of review even if the petitioner did not exercise the amount of diligence that would be demanded in the context of an equitable bill of review.

There is still a two-year statute of limitation on filing a statutory bill of review, but you don’t have to show that you were diligent.

Can a testator make hand written changes to a will

Can a testator make hand written changes to a will

Can A Testator Make Hand Written Changes To A Will?

 

As a general rule, if a will is not “wholly” in the handwriting of the testator, it must be attested to by two credible witnesses.

If a testator attempts to make handwritten changes to a written will, those changes must be witnessed by two credible witnesses unless the handwritten parts are separate from the written will, in which case it would be a codicil to the original written will not handwritten changes on the original will.

If a testator wants to make handwritten changes to the written will the changes must be attested to by two credible witnesses. So you might have a situation where there is a will that is attested to by two credible witnesses and then handwritten changes on the written will that are attested to by the same witnesses on the original will or by new witnesses just to the handwriting changes. In the last situation, you would have four witnesses in total! 05-12-01420-CV.

When is a handwritten document a holographic will?

When is a handwritten document a holographic will?

Holographic wills

In a case decided in 2019, 14-18-00256-CV, a man named Silverman wrote the following on a piece of paper:

10/26/15 Karen Grenrood is my executor, administrator, [and] has all legal rights to my estate in the case of my untimely or timely death. Very truly yours, [signature] Jerry VanDaveer [witness] Karen Grenrood [witness]

Karen was Silverman’s office manager. She filed the document for probate as a holographic will. A holographic will is one wholly in the handwriting of the testator. Such a will is legal in Texas and some states but illegal in other states like Florida. A holographic will does not need to be witnessed.

A contest was filed that opposed the document being considered as Silverman’s will. They claimed that the document did not dispose of property and was not made with testamentary intent. The trial court agreed. Karen appealed.

The appeals court first said “A court’s first duty in a proceeding to admit a writing offered for probate is to determine whether the writing is testamentary in character…The requisite testamentary intent does not depend upon the maker’s realization that he is making a will, or upon his designation of the instrument as a will, but rather upon his intention to create a revocable disposition of his property to take effect after his death…The writing must be ineffectual as a transfer of any rights or interest before death…Further, courts often state that the writing must operate to transfer, convey, or dispose of the testator’s property upon death.” In other words, it does not dispose of property in the present which would be a gift. The transfer of property must take place on death.

The appeals court held that the document was a will that could be admitted to probate because it named an executor even if it did not transfer property. But they also ruled that there was a jury question whether or not the document transferred property to Karen with the words “has all legal rights to my estate…” The reversed the trial court and sent the case back to be tried by a jury.

So, every document must be reviewed on its own to see if it qualifies as a will.

If you have a question about a pending or anticipated lawsuit about contesting a will in Texas, use the Contact Us page at the top of the site to see if we can help.

Problems filing in the wrong court

Problems filing in the wrong court

What happens if you miss-file your claims

When a case or claim is filed in the wrong court, you may lose your claim without being heard. If your case is dismissed after the statute of limitations has run, you are out of luck no matter how good your claim was.

Necessary Disclaimer: Do not take, or refrain from taking, any action based on what you read. You need to discuss your situation with an attorney who can advise you based on your facts.

If you have a question about a pending or anticipated lawsuit about contesting a will in Texas, use the Contact Us page at the top of the site to see if we can help.

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Filing in the wrong court

In a 2020 case, a man died and his family filed his probate case in the probate court. His wife ( a divorce was pending but was not final so she was still his wife) filed an opposition and also filed a tort suit against the other family members in the probate court asserting claims of business disparagement and intentional infliction of emotional distress. (“the tort case”). The other family members filed a motion to dismiss under the Texas Anti-SLAPP law. The probate judge granted the motion to dismiss the tort suit and ordered the wife to pay attorney’s fees to the other family members. The wife appealed. 4-19-00500-CV.

No jurisdiction

In the appeal, the appeals court ruled that the probate court did not have jurisdiction over the tort suit. Because this decision came more than two years after the claims accrued, it was too late for the wife to refile them in a court that did have jurisdiction. 

The moral of this case?

If you file in the wrong court you may never get your case decided on the merits.

Read About A Muniment Of Title In Texas

Read About A Muniment Of Title In Texas

Muniment of Title means to probate a will quickly and cost-efficiently when there is no need for administration of the estate. A court may probate a will as a Muniment of Title if the court finds that the will should be admitted to probate, that there is no need for an administration, and that there are no unpaid debts of the estate other than liens on real estate. One of the purposes of this limited form of probate is to provide continuity in the chain of title to estate properties by placing the will on the public record.

In normal probate where an executor is appointed and files his oath, Letters Testamentary are issued by the clerk to the ExecutorLetters Testamentary are the documents that show that the Executor has been duly appointed and is the legal owner of the estate’s property. Legal ownership needs to be distinguished from beneficial ownership. The beneficial owners are the persons named in the will to receive the property. The Executor is the legal owner which gives him the right to gather all of the assets of the estate to distribute to the beneficiaries. The Letters Testamentary are required by many financial institutions before they will release accounts belonging to the decedent. Letters of Administration are the exact same thing but are issued when an Administrator is appointed rather than an Executor. An Administrator is appointed when there is no will. Filing a will as a Muniment of Title can make the probate process easier if no administration is necessary and no debts are owed by the estate.

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