What You Need to Know about the Burden of Proof in Contesting a Will

What You Need to Know about the Burden of Proof in Contesting a Will

Will Contest in Texas

In Texas, when someone dies, they may leave behind a will. Sometimes, people may disagree about what the will says or whether it is valid. Then, they may go to court to ask a judge to decide. Who has the burden of proof at this stage can be important.

This is what happened in a case called Castello v. Castello, 03-22-00012-CV. In this case, a man named Frank Castello died in 2018. He had a wife named Cindy and three children from a previous marriage. He also had a will that he made in 2012. In his will, he said that he wanted to give his wife the right to use his property for her life, but after she died, he wanted his children to get everything. He also chose his son Mark to be the executor of his will. The executor is the person who is in charge of carrying out the will.

The Contest in Castello

Cindy contested the will. She said that Frank did not have the mental ability to make a will in 2012. She said that he had a stroke in 2006 and that his condition got worse after that. She said that he could not remember things, recognize people, or make decisions for himself. She also said that she had another will that Frank made in 2009. In that will, he gave her more property and less to his children. Cindy wanted the 2009 will admitted to probate.

Mark said that Frank did have the mental ability to make a will in 2012. He said that he talked to Frank about his wishes and that Frank understood what he was doing. He also said that the will was signed by Frank and two witnesses who said that Frank was of sound mind. He asked the court to admit the 2012 will to probate. Probate is the process of proving that a will is valid and following its instructions. Who had the burden of proof would be important in deciding this case.

Trial Court Decision

The trial court had to decide who was right. The court looked at the evidence that both sides presented. Mark had the 2012 will, the affidavit of the lawyer who drafted the will, and a deed that showed that Frank sold some property in 2012. Cindy had her own affidavit and some parts of the lawyer’s deposition. A deposition is when someone answers questions under oath before the trial.

The trial court ruled that Mark was right. The court said that the 2012 will was valid and that Frank had the mental ability to make it. The court said that Cindy’s evidence was not enough to show that Frank was not capable of making a will. The court admitted the 2012 will to probate and dismissed Cindy’s claim.

The Appeal – Burden of Proof

Cindy was not happy with the court’s decision. She appealed to a higher court. She said that the lower court made a mistake. She said that she did have enough evidence to show that Frank did not have the mental ability to make a will in 2012. She said that the court should have let a jury decide the case.

The higher court agreed with Cindy. The higher court said that Cindy’s evidence did show that there was a question of fact about Frank’s mental ability. A question of fact is something that is not clear, and that needs to be decided by a jury. The higher court said that Cindy’s evidence showed that Frank’s physical and mental health had been declining since his stroke in 2006 and that he had Alzheimer’s disease, memory problems, and confusion. The higher court said that this evidence could be used to show that Frank did not have the mental ability to make a will in 2012. The higher court said that the lower court should not have decided the case by itself. The higher court said that the case should go to a jury trial. A jury trial is when a group of people listen to the evidence and decide who is right.

The higher court reversed the lower court’s decision and sent the case back for a jury trial. The case is not over yet. Cindy and Mark will have to present their evidence to a jury and let them decide who gets what after Frank died.

Burden of Proof

The higher court based its opinion on who had the burden of proof. The proponent, Mark, had the burden of proof if the will was contested before it was admitted to probate. Cindy would have the burden of proof if the will was contested after the will was admitted to probate. Because the will was contested before it was admitted to probate, Mark had the burden of proof. Since Cindy put on some evidence of mental incapacity, the trial court was wrong to grant a summary judgment without a jury trial.

Lesson to be learned

A person thinking about contesting a will needs to act quickly. Cindy contested the will early, before it was admitted to probate, and therefore, Mark had the burden. If Cindy had waited until the will was admitted to probate, she would have the burden of proof to show lack of mental capacity. Her evidence may not have met the burden of proof standard.

Statutory Probate Judges And Why You Want One

Statutory Probate Judges And Why You Want One

Statutory Probate Judges

The largest counties in Texas have Statutory Probate Courts. Those courts handle all probate matters in these large counties. The judges of those courts are well-versed in probate law and procedure. If you have a contested probate matter, it would be best to have a Statutory Probate Judge hear your case because of the judge’s experience and training. However, as stated earlier, the Statutory Probate Courts are only in the largest Texas counties.

If you file a contested probate case in a smaller Texas County, you may get a judge who hears criminal, civil, and probate cases. This doesn’t mean that those judges are incompetent in probate matters. It just means that probate matters make up a small part of their docket.

In medium-sized Texas counties, the county will have a County Court At Law. Of course, the judge of the County Court At Law has to be an attorney, but those courts hear all kinds of cases, from criminal to family matters to probate matters. In counties with a County Court At Law, you cannot request that Statutory Probate Judge be assigned to your case.

So, how can you get one to hear your case?

In the smaller Texas counties, the County Judge, who is more like the mayor of the county, hears uncontested probate matters. The County Judge does not need to be an attorney. If the probate case becomes contested, the case is transferred to the District Court, where the judge has to be an attorney. But these judges also hear all kinds of issues, not just probate cases.

In the smaller Texas counties, those without a County Court At Law, you have the ability to have a statutory probate judge hear your contested case. To get a Statutory Probate Judge to hear your case, you must file a motion requesting one at the beginning of the contest. If you wait and the county judge transfers the case to the district judge before your request, you will be heard in the district court. TEC §32.003, In Re Kohleffel, 13-22-00509-CV, (Tex. App. – Edinburg November 18, 2022.)

Learn more about Texas probate here. Find out the types of Texas probate here.

What can go wrong if you represent yourself – part 2

What can go wrong if you represent yourself – part 2

Representing yourself in court

I have written before about what can go wrong when representing yourself in court. Look at this post and this one. The law refers to you as a pro se litigant.

Many people ask about representing themselves in court. They also want to know how to do it. One of the problems with probate matters involving inheritance issues or contesting a will is that the estate is considered a separate person. So while you can represent yourself in court, you can’t represent the interest of the estate. There were two recent cases dealing with pro se litigants and inheritance issues.

The first one involved a man attempting to probate a will and getting appointed as the independent executor as the will specified. Because he wasn’t an attorney, he could represent himself but could not represent the estate so while the judge did admit the will to probate he refused to appoint the man the independent executor of the estate. 13-17-00555-CV.

The second case involved a man dying during an appeal. The man’s attorney withdrew because he couldn’t get the man’s wife to cooperate with him. The wife attempted to represent the estate and filed the appellate brief. The appeals court dismissed the appeal because the wife was not an attorney and therefore could not represent the estate. 08-20-00052-CV.

Can you represent yourself?

Yes. Is it wise, no. And remember, you can’t represent someone else in court and an estate is someone else so you can’t represent an estate in court, only yourself.

Learn the First Step in Contesting a Will in Texas

What Happens When You File An Inheritance Dispute In The Wrong Texas Court

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.

Thanks for visiting!

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.

What can go wrong if you represent yourself – part 1

What can go wrong if you represent yourself – part 1

Contesting a will in Texas and representing yourself

Representing yourself in a Texas will contest is like operating on yourself. Can you do it? Yes. Is it safe to do it? No.

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.

Thanks for visiting!

What can go wrong if you represent yourself

In a 2020 case, a man contested the will of a woman who he claimed was his common-law wife. Texas refers to these marriages as informal marriages.

He was quickly thrown out of court because he represented himself and did not know what he was doing. When reading the case, it seems that he had a good case or at least a case that could have been tried to a jury. But because he was representing himself and did not know what to do, he lost before the case ever got to a jury. The decision of the appeals court is full of examples of things that he failed to do to be able to maintain his claim. The court was not able to do anything but dismiss his case. 07-19-00283-CV, 07-18-00434-CV.

The moral of the story is this: if you represent yourself, the court cannot give you any help. You have to know what is needed and provide it in a timely manner. If you don’t, your case will be dismissed before anyone decides the merits of your case.

Removal Suits May be Subject to the Texas Anti-SLAPP, TCPA Law

Removal Suits May be Subject to the Texas Anti-SLAPP, TCPA Law

Problems with Removal of Trustee or Executor

Trustees and executors are fiduciaries and owe duties to the beneficiaries of the trust or estate that they are in charge of. If they breach those duties, they can be removed.

The Texas Anti-SLAPP, TCPA, law was established to protect a person’s right to free speech, free association and the right to petition. When a suit is filed and a motion to dismiss under the Texas Anti-SLAPP, TCPA law is filed, the suit stops and the judge must rule on the motion. If he grants the motion, the suit is dismissed and the person who brought the suit is required to pay the attorney’s fees of the person sued. He may also have to pay expenses and sanctions. The law is a draconian sword hanging over suits.

The law has been applied in many different suits like divorce actions, collection suits, contract cases, etc. How far the law reaches is still being ironed out in Texas.

Recently, there was a suit to remove a trustee. Does it apply to removal actions?

A suit was filed to remove a trustee. The trustee filed a motion to dismiss under the Texas Anti-SLAPP, TCPA, law. You can read about it below.

Suit to Remove Trustee as a Texas Anti-SLAPP, TCPA Claim

Does the Texas Anti-SLAPP, TCPA law apply? Well, in the case, the court assumed without deciding that it did then went on to rule that the people against whom the motion to dismiss was filed met their burden and proved their defense. The motion to dismiss was denied.

If the people who filed the removal action had not met their burden, their removal suit might have been dismissed and they would have had to pay the attorney’s fees of the trustee. Just be aware!

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