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.

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.

Pretermitted Spouse in Texas

Pretermitted Spouse in Texas

Pretermitted Spouse in Texas.

Texas does not recognize a pretermitted spouse, but other states, including New Mexico, do. I have written articles about a pretermitted spouse here and here. Even though Texas doesn’t recognize a pretermitted spouse, do they have inheritance rights in Texas if they are recognized as a pretermitted spouse in another state?

Background

If a person leaves a will, the will is filed for probate, and it determines who owns his property. If there is no will, then an heirship determination is filed to determine who his/her heirs are and who will receive his/her property.

Can you have an heirship proceeding when there is a will? Yes, says Amarillo Court of Appeals, 07-21-00137-CV.

Facts

A man died with a will. His sister filed the will for probate, claiming his property under the will. The will was admitted to probate on September 16, 2015. Almost two years later, a woman from New Mexico filed a pleading in the case asking for an heirship determination alleging that she was the man’s common-law wife. She claims that she is a pretermitted spouse under New Mexico law. Because she was a pretermitted spouse, she claimed she owned the man’s property.

The sister filed a plea to the jurisdiction and a motion for summary judgment, alleging that there could be no determination of heirship because there was a will. She cited §202.002 of the Estate Code “Circumstances under Which Proceeding to Declare Heirship Is Authorized.”

Ruling

The court pointed out that §202.002(2)(B) of that section allows an heirship proceeding when there is a will if “no final disposition of property in this state has been made in the administration…”

Because “Nothing of record indicates that the administration of Joe’s testamentary estate ever closed,” the court held that §202.002(2)(B) applied and denied the sister’s plea to the jurisdiction and summary judgment. The wife was allowed to have her day in court.

Reflection

There can be no Texas pretermitted spouse, but if a person from another state is recognized as a pretermitted spouse, they may be able to obtain some or all of their spouse’s estate. It is worth noting that the case mentions that the man had property in New Mexico.

Can you have a secret common-law marriage in Texas

Can you have a secret common-law marriage in Texas

Texas Law

Texas recognizes common-law marriages or what Texas refers to as” informal” marriages. An informal marriage may be proved in one of two ways. The first way is to introduce a declaration of informal marriage that has been filed with the County clerk. If there is no declaration of marriage, a common-law marriage may be proved by showing: (1) agreement to be married; (2) after the agreement, living together in Texas as husband and wife; and (3) representing to others in Texas that they were married. FC §2.401. The statutory requirement of “represented to others” is synonymous with the judicial requirement of “holding out to the public.” Both of these methods of proving an informal marriage depend upon the marriage being open and obvious to anyone who bothers to look.

Can you have a secret common-law marriage in Texas

What happens in those circumstances when the informal marriage is kept secret from a few are many people? The courts have held that a marriage that was secret from only a few members of the couple’s family was a common-law marriage because the marriage was widely known in the community. 734 S.W.2d 27. On the other hand, courts have denied a common law marriage when the marriage was known to only a few. 333 S.W.2d 361. In other words, the cohabitation must be professed as husband and wife, and public, so that by their conduct towards each other they may be known as husband and wife.

Update: In a 2019 case, a Declaration of Marriage was filed in 2015 saying that the parties had been married since 2010. If they were married in 2010, it would be too late to contest the marriage. If they were married in 2015, the man’s children could contest the marriage. The court ruled that there was no evidence that the parties held themselves out as husband and wife (representing to others that you are married) before 2015, so there was no marriage before 2015. The children contested the marriage of 2015 saying that he was not mentally competent to marry. The jury agreed with the children that he was not mentally competent. 13-17-00431-CV.

When Are You Dead For Probate Purposes, Part 3

When Are You Dead For Probate Purposes

Everybody knows when you are dead, right? When the question involves when are you dead for probate purposes the answer is not quite so settled. I have written before on this question of when are you dead for probate purposes and those articles are cited at the bottom of this article.

Simultaneous Death Act

The question usually arises because Texas, as most states, has a statute that deals with survivorship when two people die around the same time. In Texas, if you die within 120 hours of another person you are presumed to have died at the same time. Usually when these statutes are invoked, the issue involves close family members like a husband and wife. If the husband and wife die close together in time, the state doesn’t want to require the children to have to file an estate for the father and then put his money into the mother’s estate and then open an estate for the mother and put her money into the estate of the father and then…. you can see the point. The issue is also important in joint accounts with right of survivorship. If the joint owners die close together, what happens to the money. The Simultaneous Death Act resolves that problem. One final issue is what happens when a will speaks to what happenes to the property if the testator and the main beneficiary die in a common disaster. Common disaster means (“[a]n event that causes two or more persons [with related property interests] . . . to die at very nearly the same time, with no way of determining the order of their deaths.”) This last issue relating to the definition of common disaster was the subject of a 2016 case out of the Texas Supreme Court. NO. 14-0406 consolidated with NO. 14-0407.

Facts

A husband murdered his wife at 8:59 PM and then shortly thereafter at 10:55 PM killed himself. They had nearly identical wills with provisions relating to what happens to their estate if they died in a “common disaster.” The issue before the court was whether or not these two people died in a common disaster? The trial court had ruled that they did die in a common disaster. The Court of Appeals agreed holding that the homicide-suicide was “a common disaster in spite of the fact that husband did not successfully kill himself immediately” because the shots that killed the husband and wife “were fired in one episode.” The Supreme Court however disagreed and ruled that the husband and wife did not die in a common disaster.

Construing A Will

The Supreme Court said that this was a case of construing a will, plain and simple. While the trial court and the Court of Appeals had discussed the Texas Simultaneous Death Act, the Supreme Court said that that act did not apply because the wills addressed the situation and had to be followed. The court stated that common disaster has a settled legal meaning. One of the requirements is that the order of death must be uncertain. In the case under review, there was no uncertainty as to the order of death. Common disaster fails to encompass unrelated but closely timed deaths. Therefore the doctrine of common disaster did not apply in this case. The provisions in the will dealing with what happens to the property if the husband and wife die in a common disaster never become effective.

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