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.

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.

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.

Oral Statements by the Testator about a Texas Will

When a person tells someone how he wants his property handled when he dies but he has a written will or trust, the oral statements will not change how his property is handled if the will or trust is unambiguous.

Problem

Someone testifies in a Texas will or trust contest that the testator told them how he wanted his property distributed. The will or trust of the testator specifies a different way to distribute the property. What effect do the testator’s statements have on the Texas will or trust?

Facts

In her lawsuit, Blanca alleged that when Frank decided to sell the Ranch, he told family members they would be given an opportunity to match any offer he received.

Blanca filed the underlying lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction to prevent Frank from conveying the (property based on the statements by the testator).

The court had to decide if or how this evidence should be treated.

ESTATE OF RODRIGUEZ, 04-17-00005-CV, (Tex. App. – San Antonio January 10, 2018)

Trust versus Will in Texas

Since this case dealt with a trust, the court stated the Texas’ rules for construing trusts.

The same rules of construction apply to both wills and trusts. The construction of an unambiguous trust instrument is a question of law for the trial court.

An appellate court may not focus its attention on what the testator intended to write, but on the meaning of the words he actually used.  That is, we must not redraft a trust instrument to vary or add provisions under the guise of construction of the language of the trust to reach a presumed intent. No speculation or conjecture regarding the intent of the testatrix is permissible where, as here, the will is unambiguous, and we must construe the will based on the express language used therein.

This court must harmonize all terms to give proper effect to each part of the instrument; in construing the instrument, we must give effect to all provisions and ensure that no provisions are rendered meaningless.  Provided the language of the instrument unambiguously expresses the settlor’s intent, there is no need to construe the instrument because “it speaks for itself.”

What are the rules for construing a trust in Texas?

ESTATE OF RODRIGUEZ, 04-17-00005-CV, (Tex. App. – San Antonio January 10, 2018)

Ruling

Based on the facts of the case and applying Texas law, the court found that the trust stated how the property was to be handled and that any statements by the Testator to the contrary were to be disregarded.

Notes

There are some Texas cases where a will or trust was ambiguous and statements by the Testator were used to determine what he meant. In this case, the trust was not ambiguous.

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Oral Statements by the Testator about a Texas Will

Do All Heirs Have To Join A Will Contest?

In Rem Proceedings

Will Contest in Texas are in rem proceedings which means that notice to all the heirs is not required. It is up to each interested party to keep themselves apprised of the status of any probate case. Tennessee is also an in rem state as far as contesting a will is concerned.

Do All Heirs Have To Join A Will Contest in Texas?

A will contest may be brought by anyone interested party, and all other interested parties are free to join the contestant, join the proponent, or stand aloof. But, if they don’t join and there is a settlement agreement, they may be left out as stated by the Tennessee Supreme Court; and see E2016-02497-COA-R3-CV.. Those that join the will contest may settle and if they do so in good faith, the compromise of the will contest will not inure to the benefit of those heirs not participating. The heirs not involved in the suit may lose their inheritance unless they can show some form of bad faith by the parties to the suit. In 2017, a Pennsylvania Superior Court also held that an heir who did not participate in the will contest and was left out of a settlement agreement, could not do anything about it. The heir would have received his share if he had participated in the will contest but since he did not participate, he could not challenge the settlement that excluded him. 2620 EDA 2016.

What You Should Do

If someone you love has died and there is an inheritance dispute between the heirs, all heirs should participate in the proceeding. If an heir does not join, there is a chance that they will lose an inheritance that is rightfully theirs.

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