Gerry W. Beyer 2016-12-20 18:00:38
The Texas courts have been busy over the past year deciding probate cases—some in predictable ways and others using approaches some practitioners would find surprising. This review covers the major lessons to be learned from the decisions rendered in probate cases during the latter part of 2015 and 2016 starting with three at the Texas Supreme Court. 1) “Common disaster” requires unknown death order. The Texas Supreme Court held in Stephens v. Beard1 that the term “common disaster” when used in a will without being defined requires that the death order of the indicated individuals be unknown. Thus, a murder-suicide did not qualify as a common disaster because the shooter lived two hours longer than the victim. 2) No equitable bills of review in probate cases. The Texas Supreme Court confirmed in Valdez v. Hollenbeck2 that the two-year period for a bill of review in Texas Estates Code § 55.251 abrogates the equitable bill of review in the probate context. 3) Personal representative lacks standing to “complain” about non-probate assets. In Bank of America v. Eisenhauer,3 the Texas Supreme Court refused to let a personal representative complain about a bank’s breach of a multiple-party account contract because none of the funds in the account would be in the decedent’s estate whether or not the bank breached the contract. 4) Viability of tortious interference with inheritance rights cause of action in question. At least since the 1987 case of King v. Acker,4 Texas lawyers have conducted themselves as if the state recognizes a cause of action for tortious inference with inheritance rights. Two recent cases, Jackson Walker v. Kinsel5 and Anderson v. Archer,6 have surprised some Texas estate litigators by holding that the state has yet to recognize the tort because there is no Texas Supreme Court case or legislation that does so expressly. It is anyone’s guess whether the court will grant petition on these cases. 5) Adults may not be adopted by estoppel. The court in Dampier v. Williams7 addressed a claim that a person was the sole heir of an intestate decedent as his adopted by estoppel son. The court rejected this claim because the alleged acts of estoppel occurred after the person reached age 18 so there was never a legal impediment to a formal adoption. 6) Courts will not add to Estates Code will requirements. Consistent with long-standing Texas law, the court in Matter of Kam8 refused to augment the requirements for a valid will when it rejected the will contestant’s claims that a will was invalid because the witnesses could not describe its contents, the testator did not sign in the presence of the witnesses, and the testator did not have a lengthy conversation with the witnesses before they attested. Likewise, in Matter of Estate of Standefer,9 the court rejected the argument that the testator’s handwritten signature on a will must match the typewritten version of the testator’s name. 7) Muniment of title may preclude later administration. After a will was admitted to probate as a muniment of title, the probate court opened an administration on the estate to allow the executor to pursue a potential claim. In In re Jacky,10 the court determined that this order was void because the muniment of title order was not timely appealed and no timely bill of review had been filed. 8) Unstated motivation for disinheritance is not a valid will contest ground. After the testator disinherited his daughter, she claimed that cutting her out was her father’s way of exacting “vengeance” upon her for confronting him about his alleged sexual abuse of her many decades earlier. The court in Merrick v. Helter11 rejected the daughter’s claim that the will should be set aside on public policy grounds because there were no express terms in the will that explained the alleged improper reason. Notes 1) 485 S.W.3d 914 (Tex. 2016). 2) 465 S.W.3d 217 (Tex. 2015). 3) 474 S.W.3d 264 (Tex. 2015). 4) 725 S.W.2d 750 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1987, no writ). 5) No. 07-13-00130-CV, 2015 WL 2085220 (Tex. App.—Amarillo Apr. 10, 2015, pet. filed). 6) 490 S.W.3d 175 (Tex. App.—Austin 2016, pet. filed). 7) 493 S.W.3d 118 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2016, no pet. h.). 8) 484 S.W.3d 642 (Tex. App.—El Paso 2016, pet. filed). 9) No. 11-14-00221-CV, 2015 WL 5191443 (Tex. App.—Eastland Aug. 21, 2015, no pet. h.). 10) No. 01-16-00236-CV, 2016 WL 4203421 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Aug. 9, 2016, no pet. h.). 11) No. 03-14-00708-CV, 2016 WL 4429932 (Tex. App.—Austin Aug. 18, 2016, pet. filed). GERRY W. BEYER is the Governor Preston E. Smith Regents Professor of Law at Texas Tech University School of Law where he teaches probate courses dealing with wills and trusts, estate planning, and Texas estate administration. He is the editor-in-chief of the REPTL Reporter, the quarterly publication of the Real Estate, Probate, and Trust Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.
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