A standard tactic in defending a will contest is for the proponent of the will to seek dismissal by a summary judgment motion. Under Texas law, a summary judgment dismisses a case before trial. It is designed to dispose of cases where the evidence is so strong that a jury could not reasonably find for the contestant.
A summary judgment motion is a very important event in a will contest. If the contest survives summary judgment, the case will proceed to trial. Trials are very expensive and the results are not necessarily predictable. Smart lawyers will encourage their clients to explore reasonable settlement possibilties at that point, if not earlier.
The difficulty of obtaining a summary judgment, and then keeping it on appeal, is illustrated by a very recent decision from the Houston 14th Court of Appeals. In Estate of Chapman, the Court of Appeals considered a summary judgment granted by the Fort Bend County Court at Law No. 1. It appears the trial judge dismissed the capacity/undue influence contest based generally upon the following evidence:
a) The son who was written out of the will was serving time in a federal prison and the decedent was understandably distraught;
b) An attorney prepared the will and met with the decedent. The attorney testified that he had substantial discussions with her regarding the will and that she appeared to possess testamentary capacity. Furthermore, the attorney testified that she specifically did not want her son to inherit.
However, the Court of Appeals noted the following evidence from the contesting son:
a) Decedent had a history of alcoholism. Furthermore, she was hospitalized a few weeks after executing the will. Medical records indicated pneumonia affected her mental status. There was also some evidence this condition may have existed for months;
b) Decedent had executed a power of attorney in favor of her sister about six weeks prior to executing the will, because she had difficulty handling her affairs;
c) Decedent's sister played a meaningful role in having the attorney prepare the will.
This is only a rough summary of the evidence. But this decision is yet another example of the difficulty in obtaining a summary judgment dismissal of a will contest. If a child is disinherited, the decedent was in poor health, and another family member played a role in the will, the odds are the case is headed to trial.