Probate Court? What is it?

Probate Courts are somewhat of a unique concept in Texas in that these courts are specially designated to handle only one type of case.  Generally, the courts around the state of Texas are somewhat “general” in nature–meaning that most courts handle multiple, if not almost unlimited, types of cases.  For instance, a general civil court might handle personal injury cases, contract disputes, business litigation cases, etc.  In smaller counties, the general courts handle both civil and criminal cases.

In approximately 12 counties across Texas, the Legislature has designated special “Probate” Courts, which only handle Probate, Guardianship, and some Trust cases.  Inasmuch as probate, guardianship, and trust matters are all fairly inter-related, it makes sense that these special courts would handle all of these issues as the cases tend to overlap.

The creation of special courts like the Probate Courts is very limited in Texas.  In some counties, certain courts are designated as “criminal” courts or “family” courts, but in reality, those courts all have the ability to handle non-criminal or non-family issues (respectively).  The Probate Courts are the only Courts in Texas that are created to handle one limited area of law and, by statute, cannot handle any other type of cases.

The question you might be asking yourself: “Why is probate such a unique area of law that there are special courts created specifically to handle only probate cases?”

Most people who find themselves standing in a courtroom are there because they are involved in some kind of a conflict – a divorce, a lawsuit, a criminal proceeding, etc.  Many probate and guardianship cases, however, do not involve a conflict.  For instance, the family of a recently deceased loved-one may be before the Court for the purpose of probating a Will to finalize the estate matters following that loved-one’s death.  Likewise, the children of an elderly lady suffering from Alzheimer’s may be asking the Court to appoint a guardian for their mother so that they will have the ability to provide the best care possible for her.  These cases do not involve any kind of conflict, but they still require Court intervention and action.

Although some of the cases brought to the Probate Courts involve conflicts between family members or people claiming a right under a Will, the overwhelming majority of the work performed in the Probate Courts is “administrative.”  These Courts must review all of the documents required by law to be filed in a Probate or Guardianship case (i.e. the Inventory of Assets, Annual Accountings, notices to heirs, etc.) to ensure that all of the various steps that must be completed in such cases have actually been accomplished.  The necessity to review all of these documents distinguishes the Probate Courts from other Courts because virtually no other Court in Texas is charged with the responsibility of verifying the accuracy of documents filed in their Courts.

Because of the administrative nature of the Probate Courts, many of the Probate judges around Texas take somewhat of a “customer service” approach to the operation of their Courts.  Realizing that most people come to the Probate Court only in times of personal or family sadness following the death or incapacity of a loved one, most Probate judges strive to ease the probate/guardianship process as much as possible to make the otherwise difficult time as easy and friendly as possible.

Given the nature of the work that goes on in the Probate Courts, it seems appropriate that these courts be operated with a view towards serving the public.  In all reality, very few people in society want to hire a lawyer and go to Court for any reason.  In the difficult times following the death of a friend or family member, the general public should be able to expect that our Probate Courts will be there to assist them in making the probate process as easy and user-friendly as possible.  Anything less should be unacceptable.