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.

Who Receives Notice of Probate?

Who Receives Notice of Probate?

Texas Probate Notice Requirements

Who receives notice when a will is filed for probate in Texas?

When a will is filed for probate in Texas, the county clerk posts a notice on the courthouse wall. This notice provides constructive notice to the world that the will has been filed, and individuals should take necessary steps to protect their interests if any time limits or statutes of limitation apply.

However, a different rule applies when someone is a named beneficiary in the will. In that case, the executor or administrator must provide actual notice to the beneficiary that the will has been filed for probate. There must be something more than constructive notice.

Named Beneficiary

In a recent Texas case, the contestant did not file his will contest within the two-year statute of limitations for contesting wills, and his contest was dismissed, leading to an appeal. 12-22-00256-CV. The contestant argued that he was a named beneficiary and should have received actual notice of the probate. However, the appeals court disagreed.

Decision

The will listed the contestant as the son of the testator but stated that the testator had “already give my son…a 1985 Chevrolet Corvette for his inheritance of my estate.” Despite the poor grammar, the court determined that the testator meant “already given my son” his inheritance, indicating that the son was not a beneficiary under the will since he did not receive anything under the will.

Things to Note

When someone passes, it is the responsibility of the heirs to understand what actions are required. In some cases, close relatives are unaware of an individual’s passing for several years following their death. If an individual is not listed as a named beneficiary in the will, they will not receive any personal notification, making it crucial for individuals to keep themselves informed.

Void Versus Voidable Marriages

Void Versus Voidable Marriages

Void versus Voidable

In a recent Texas case, Allebach v. Gollub, 14-22-00272-CV, the issue of void versus voidable marriages came up. There is a difference in the way the courts treat void marriages as opposed to voidable marriages. A void marriage is just that, void. A voidable marriage is one that can be declared void but someone must take some action to get it voided.

A man remarried after his wife died. When the man died, the new wife filed a new will for probate that left most of his estate to her. The Man’s children from the first marriage contested the will on the basis that the man lacked the testamentary capacity to make a new will. They also alleged that the marriage to the new wife was void. It was void, according to them, because the new wife was the daughter of their father’s biological sister – she was his niece. The new wife said the children were too late to contest the marriage because they didn’t complain about the new marriage until four years after the man died.

Is it too late?

There is a provision in the Texas estates code, §123.102, that says an interested party must contest a marriage within three years of the date of death of the Decedent. The subchapter is titled “Proceeding to Void Marriage Based on Mental Capacity Pending at Time of Death.”

The new wife said that this provision applied and since the children had not filed their motion to void the marriage within three years, the limitations of that provision applied and they were too late.

The court examined §123.102 and found that it applied to voidable marriages but not void marriages. The court explained that the marriage to a close relative was void and not voidable. Different rules are applied to void marriages. The court pointed out that:

And under our common law, such suits may be brought “by anyone, at any time, directly or collaterally.” See Simpson v. Neely, 221 S.W.2d 303, 308 (Tex. App.-Waco 1949, writ ref’d)…Thus, the limitations provision contained within Section 123.102 should only be understood to apply to a challenge to a marriage made voidable on the ground of mental incapacity. This understanding comports with the plain language of the statute, and it also preserves the longstanding common law rule that challenges to void marriages are not subject to limitations.

When you need to contest a marriage of someone who dies, you have to know the difference between void versus voidable marriages. If the marriage is void, as it was here, it can be contested at any time by anybody. However, if you are contesting the marriage because a person lacks mental capacity, you have to contest it within three years of that person’s deat.

Find Out Who is an Interested Party for Probate Purposes?

Find Out Who is an Interested Party for Probate Purposes?

The Texas Probate Code defines “interested persons,” in relevant part, to be: children, heirs, devisees, spouses, creditors, or any others having a property right in, or claim against, the estate being administered . . .” In order to contest a will, you must be an “interested party.”

The interest referred to must be a pecuniary one, held by the party either as an individual or in a representative capacity, which will be affected by the probate or defeat of the will. That means you must have a financial interest. An interest resting on sentiment or sympathy, or any other basis other than gain or loss of money or its equivalent, is insufficient. For instance, if you are a neighbor and you see that an undeserving child seems to be ending up with all of the property of their parents or grandparents, there’s nothing that you can do because your interest is not pecuniary. It is just altruistic. The only thing that you can do is to notify an interested party of your concerns. If they are not interested in contesting the will, there’s nothing else for you to do.

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Robert Ray is Board Certified

Robert Ray is the Editor and owner of this site. Board Certified, Personal Injury Trial Law — Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

We handle cases throughout Texas. Our principal office is in Lantana, Texas (DFW area).

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Contesting a will with a no contest clause.

Contesting a will with a no contest clause.

 

 

 

Most wills have a no-contest clause in them. These no contest clauses are also called in terrorem clauses. I have described these here. Many people ask if these no contest clauses mean that they can’t contest a will. The answer to that question is no.

Courts are reluctant to enforce these clauses because of the chilling effect they have on legitimate claims that the will being contested is not the will of the testator. Imagine a situation where a person has gained undue influence over the testator who then makes a will leaving little to his family and benefiting the person exerting the undue influence. If the family receives anything under the will, they will be afraid that they will lose what little they have if they contest the will. It’s for this reason that courts are reluctant to enforce these clauses. The legislature also passed a law making these provisions void if the person contesting the will did so in good faith and with just cause. Under that law, even if a contestant loses the will contest, he won’t be denied his inheritance set out in the unsuccessfully challenged will if the court or jury finds he was contesting the will in good faith and with just cause. Of course, if someone is contesting a will without good faith and just cause, the courts may enforce the no-contest clause. There are very few cases where the courts have enforced these provisions although there are some.

You can find more information here.

I have created a podcast about no-contest clauses in a will. You can find it here.

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