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.

Who Can Contest a Texas Probate?

Who Can Contest a Texas Probate?

Who Can Contest a Texas Probate

Background

In order to contest a Texas probate, you have to have standing. Standing means a person has a right to bring a lawsuit in Texas. To have standing in a Texas probate proceeding, you have to be an interested party.

Facts

In a recent case out of the Fort Worth court of appeals, the issue of standing was the central issue. 02-21-00290-CV. In this case, a man died in an accident. His common-law wife, Ms. Pachecano, had three suits; a worker’s compensation case, a wrongful death and survival action, and a probate case seeking to be appointed administrator of the husband’s estate. In the worker’s compensation case, the insurance company balked because of the alleged common-law marriage. Ms. Pachecano settled the worker’s compensation case to get the proceeds for her children. She signed papers that she was not a legal beneficiary.

When Ms. Pachecano filed the probate case to be appointed administrator of her husband’s estate, the defendant, Jackson, intervened in the probate case. Jackson claimed that because Ms. Pachecano had said in the worker’s compensation case that she was not a legal beneficiary, she couldn’t participate in his probate case—the probate court denied Jackson’s intervention. Jackson appealed. Ms. Pachecano did not challenge Jackson’s standing to be involved in the probate case until after he appealed.

Appeal

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court, stating:

Because Jackson was not an interested person, Ms. Pachecano’s argument continues that Jackson lacked standing to intervene in the heirship proceeding that she filed. We agree that the question of whether a person is interested implicates standing. As explained below, Jackson as a defendant in a wrongful-death and survival action is not an interested person in an heirship determination; thus, Jackson lacked standing to intervene. Further, Jackson’s arguments regarding why it had standing—whether an interested person or not—are unpersuasive.

Ms. Pachecano did not challenge Jackson’s standing to intervene in the probate court. That failure, however, is not a waiver of a jurisdiction-based contention, such as standing.

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.

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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