The case of the blinking testator

In ESTATE OF LUCE, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals considered questions surrounding the validity of proxy signatures and testamentary capacity of an accident victim of executes a substitute will while in the hospital.

Michael and GayeLynne Luce’s marriage was not without conflict. After years of trial separations and attempted divorce the couple finally appeared to split for good. In the Fall of 2015 with Michael and GayeLynne’s divorce proceedings working its way through Parker County, Texas courts, Michael was in an ATV accident that left him a quadriplegic.

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TXPLMichael Young
A killer can't inherit

Texas, like many other states, prohibits a killer from receiving life insurance proceeds or inheriting from an estate.  Such prohibitions are commonly referenced as either a "slayer statute" or a "slayer rule." The public policy is obviously that a killer should not financially benefit from a death he or she willfully causes.  Given the sizes of many estates and life insurance policies, such scenarios are unfortunately not uncommon.   Certainly, investigators and prosecutor will look to whether insurance or estate proceeds might have provided motive for a particular murder. There have even been some notorious cases of people taking out life insurance policies on acquaintances and then killing them for profit.

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Court rejects undue influence claim regarding account designations

Many assets pass through beneficiary designations. A significant part of my Texas estate litigation practice involves contesting life insurance beneficiary designations and contesting financial account designations. In Fielding v. Tullos, the Beaumont Court of Appeals considered a contest to financial account designations, based on claims of undue influence. The decedent had various financial accounts at UBS. He was widowed and had no children. His legal heirs included six nieces and nephews. A caretaker began working for the decedent and his wife in 1997. She continued working for the decedent after his wife died in in 2004.  In 2004, the decedent executed beneficiary designations for various accounts at UBS. 

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How to contest a will in Texas

Questions regarding the basics of contesting a will or defending a will contest are common from potential clients.  Of course, every case is different.  The most important guidance I can provide is to consult with an experienced probate litigator very, very early in the process.  I can not count the number of times I've been asked to consider handling a will contest after the potential client has spent months or more with a lawyer who is a "family friend" or was seemingly picked at random. 

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Estate of Harrell: Jury finds testator had capacity

In Estate of Harrell, the testator's daughter challenged her father's capacity to execute a will.  The jury found he had capacity and the Houston Court of Appeals (1st. Dist.) affirmed that decision. The father executed the challenged will in 2012.  The will specifically identified the daughter, but disinherited her.  Instead, he gave his property generally to the sons of a close friend and to his brother.  This was contrary to a will he had executed in 1999. The father died in 2016.  Daughter contested the 2012 will, citing her father's alleged alcoholism and a hoarding disorder. She also cited the fact that his own name was misspelled in the will. The proponents of the will presented testimony from the drafting attorney and two of the attorney's employees, who served as witnesses to the will. Predictably, they testified it appeared he had capacity.  But they did not know him well and could not recall details of conversations with him or the will execution.

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Sibling has standing to complain of another sibling

In Mayfield v. Peek, the El Paso Court of Appeals considered a standing issue.  Standing may sound like a dry issue, particularly to non-lawyers.  But is a crucial issue to my practice of litigating Texas estate and trust beneficiary disputes.  If a court rules that a party does not have standing, it will typically not even reach the merits of the underlying issue.  In layman's terms, the courthouse doors are closed. Mayfield involved two siblings fighting over an inheritance from their parents. The parents had set up a family revocable trust their children and several other relatives.  The trust was funded by several pieces of real property and other assets. The trust became irrevocable upon the death of the first parent.

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Court finds evidence to establish lack of capacity

In Estate of Danford, the County Court in Brazoria County had dismissed a will contest at the summary judgment stage.  In essence, the trial court found that the contestants to the offered will had not presented sufficient evidence to get to trial on either lack of capacity or undue influence claims.  The Houston 14th Court of Appeals disagreed. Regarding capacity, the court of appeals noted the following evidence from the contestants:

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Yes, a deed can be overturned

A deed is typically considered a non-testamentary disposition.  Property that has been deeded away, either directly or through a retained life estate, is not included in a grantor's estate at death. But are there ways to overturn a deed under Texas law? Yes.  Like a will or an account/insurance designation, a deed can be set aside if a grantor lacked sufficient mental capacity to execute the deed.  Or if the grantor was subjected to undue influence in executing the deed. The analysis will be similar to a will contest. Mental capacity is relatively straightforward, even if the proof is often complex. 

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Corpus Christi court upholds undue influence verdict

In Estate of Jose M. Rodriguez the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals considered a verdict denying probate to a will because of undue influence. The court of appeals upheld the jury's verdict. Proof of a claim of undue influence has three elements: (1) the existence and exertion of an influence; (2) that subverted or overpowered the testator’s mind at the time he executed the instrument; (3) so that the testator executed an instrument he would not otherwise have executed but for that influence.

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TXPLMichael Young
Account designations in favor of an ex-spouse

For decades, Texas law has provided that a designation of a spouse as a beneficiary in a life insurance policy or a will is rendered void by a divorce. The exceptions are limited. The provision regarding life insurance policies is found in Section 9.301 of the Texas Family Code. The provision regarding wills is found in Section 123.001 of the Texas Estates Code. These provisions often arise in my life insurance beneficiary dispute practice and in estate disputes.

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Testator lacked capacity to execute estate planning documents

In Texas Capital Bank v. Asche, the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court's judgment that a series of estate planning documents should be set aside. The judgment was based on jury findings that the testator lacked sufficient mental capacity to execute the documents. This was not the classic case of challenged will executed in the days or weeks before death. In this case, the challenge was to a series of wills, codicils, and trust documents executed over a period of about 13 years. This was not an easy task for the contestants, given the long time period and number of documents executed. The challenge was largely based on the testimony of a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Lisa Clayton. She opined that a stroke the testator suffered in 1997 rendered him without testamentary capacity until he died in 2011.

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Court may construe a will before it is admitted to probate

Many will contests involve a challenge to the validity of a will, such as claims it did not meet formality requirements or that the testator lacked capacity or was subjected to undue influence. However, sometimes the primary dispute is how to interpret one or more provisions of a will. I find this to be most often the case when the will is not prepared by an experienced estate planing lawyer. Unfortunately, homemade wills often contain confusing, unclear, or outright contradictory provisions.  Or a testator may have an excellent will drafted by a lawyer, only to make a homemade codicil that offers more confusion than clarity. The procedure for having a court determine meaning of a legal document, such as a will, is through a declaratory judgment action.  

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Estate of Koontz: Another summary judgment overturned

Estate of Koontz is a very recent decision from the San Antonio Court of Appeals.  The trial court in Bandera County had granted summary judgment against a will contestant's claims of lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence. The trial court also ordered the contestant to pay the executor $18,029.49 in attorney's fees, finding the contest was not brought in good faith or with just cause.  The court of appeals reversed the summary judgment ruling and the award of attorney's fees. The primary evidence in response to the motion for summary judgment was the affidavit of the contestant.  

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TXPL, Will contestsMichael Young
Estate of Matthews: Successful challenge to marriage

A fairly common scenario in estate litigation involves a claim from a widow to a share of an estate.  Often there is a claim of a common law marriage. Texas recognizes common law marriage under some circumstances.  Once established, a common law marriage is effectively the same as a formal marriage. Even a formal marriage can be challenged, under limited circumstances.  

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Cases, Probate, TXPLMichael Young
Estoppel does not prevent beneficiary from pre-suit discovery

The Fort Worth Court of Appeals decision in In Re Meeker involves two important issues for probate litigators: entitlement to pre-suit discovery and estoppel based on acceptance of benefits. Both issues arise fairly regularly in will contests. Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 202 provides a limited method to obtain discovery of facts before actually filing a suit.  It is a useful tool when a litigant suspects they have a valid claim, but wish to investigate further before actually filing suit. There are some exacting requirements of the rule and the discovery tools are more limited than would be allowed in an actual lawsuit. But it can be a useful mechanism at times, particularly when a potential will contestant is unable to obtain much information through informal investigation.

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Garrett v. First State Bank of Central Texas: No informal fiduciary relationship

In Garrett v. First State Bank of Central Texas, the Waco Court of Appeals considered a dispute over the ownership of a decedent's account. The bank filed an interpleader when faced with competing claims to the account proceeds, between the decedent's estate and his caregiver. The decedent added the caregiver as a signatory to his money market account. After decedent's passing, the caregiver claimed he wanted the account to pass to her after his death. But the trial court ruled the account documents the decedent signed did not make her the survivorship beneficiary. There was a dispute as to whether the decedent had actually instructed the bank that he wanted the caregiver to be the beneficiary of the account or just a signatory to pay bills.

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Mind your QDRO

I routinely handle life insurance beneficiary disputes. As I mentioned in a previous post, the first issue I analyze is whether the life insurance policy is governed by state law or by a federal law known as ERISA. Many ERISA policy disputes involve claims by former spouses to life insurance benefits.  Many states bar former spouses from receiving life insurance benefits if the designation was  made prior to the divorce. But such state laws are generally superseded by ERISA.  Often there is a claim that the former spouse waived their beneficiary status in the divorce decree.  

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In re Estate of Parrimore: Court of appeals upholds factual findings regarding capacity and undue influence

Texas appellate courts are generally reluctant to overturn trial court factual findings regarding testamentary capacity and undue influence. In re Estate of Parrimore, from the Houston 14th Court of Appeals, is an example. Parrimore involved a trial to the judge (bench trial) of a will contest.  The contest involved the usual issues regarding testamentary capacity and undue influence. The evidence at trial was that the testator signed the will only 11 days after being released from the hospital for treatment after a stroke. However, there was also evidence that the testator had begun work on his will long before the stroke and it was consistent with wishes long expressed to friends.

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TXPL, Will contestsMichael Young