This Week in Probate and Guardianship Appeals

Johnny Carroll, Individually and as Trustee of the Johnny Carroll Trust, v. Letha Frances Carroll and Donald Carroll, Supreme Court of Texas
This week’s entry comes to us from on high, the Texas Supreme Court. Johnny Carroll appealed the Appellate court’s ruling on a default judgment which was awarded in favor of Letha and Donald Carroll. Johnny raised the issue of jurisdiction for the first time in the Supreme Court cliaming that the County Court, to which this case had been transferred, lacked the requisit jurisdiction to hear the matter. The Supreme Court agreed.

Jurisdiction in regard to Trust Proceedings

The Texas Property Code provides that a district court has original and exclusive jurisdiction over all proceedings concerining trusts, including proceedings to appoint or remove a trustee, determine the liablity of a trustee, or to require an accounting by a trustee.

Letha and Donald’s original suit sought exactly such accounting and removal. Despite this, the 66th District Court of Hill County transferred this suit to to County Court at Law.

The Supreme Court noted that the district courts may only assign cases to the county courts at law that are within the county court at law’s jurisdiction. Because nothing in the Texas Government Code confers jurisdiction on county courts at law over trust proceedings, the transfer to the Hill County Court at Law was improper. In light of the fact that the Hill County Court at Law had no jurisdiction over the proceeding, its judgment was void.

What does all of this mean for you? Perhaps a lot. Void judgments are no judgments at all. They are good nowhere and can be attacked at any time. Therefore, even if you have been out of court for years and you now read this and realize your trust case was handled in a court that lacked jurisdiction, you may still be able to attack such a judgment on the basis of voidness. To make sure, call us today and schedule an appointment to discuss your options.

The High Cost of Your Will

Each week, The Houston Chronicle runs a column entitled “State Your Case,” where local attorney Ron Lipman answers 4 or 5 questions from readers regarding various legal subjects. Recently, Lipman devoted the entire week’s column to estate planning and probate questions covering a range of concerns regarding Wills and probate questions.

In one of those questions, the reader asked Lipman, “What should I expect to pay for a simple Will…?” The reader pointed out that he just wanted a Will that passed everything to he or his wife when the first of them died, and then upon the death of the second of them, everything would be split equally between their children.

Having apparently conducted an informal survey of other attorneys in Houston, Lipman discussed that fees for a simple Will can sometimes be as high as $2,000 for a married couple. He also pointed out that a simple trust for a special needs child will generally cost anywhere from $2,000 on the low side or $4,000 on the higher end.

In my opinion, Lipman has provided useful information to answer this reader’s question, and his answer is probably fairly accurate. What surprises me, though, is the fairly high cost that some lawyers are charging for their “simple” Wills and for trusts for special needs children.

Ford & Mathiason has always advocated that each person in Texas should have a Will and that there is no substitute for the competent, experienced advice of attorneys who routinely advise clients in estate planning. However, Ford and Mathiason has historically charged much lower rates for these services and has always been very upfront and honest about the manner in which we charge for our estate planning services. In the Rates and Fees section of our website, you can find detailed information on the methods that we use for charging for our services, which we provide so that potential clients can fully understand the financial commitment that they are making when hiring an attorney.

As you embark on new decisions in 2010, consider carefully whether you need to make changes to your existing Will or if you need to create a Will for the first time. At the same time, do not let articles like Lipman’s scare you into thinking that these services are cost prohibitive. Ford & Mathiason is happy to offer estate planning expertise at reasonable rates. Please contact us if you would like to discuss your options further.

This Week in Probate and Guardianship Appeals

Starting in 2010, Ford & Mathiason LLP will be writing a weekly entry covering newly released opinions by the Texas Courts of Appeals in the areas of Probate and Guardianship. Jason Brower, Associate in charge of the appellate section of Ford & Mathiason LLP, will be authoring these entries.

Estate of Pauline Moran Allen, Tyler Court of Appeals

This week’s entry comes to us from the 12th District Court of Appeals in Tyler. Dollie Weir appealed the trial court’s order which granted Leonard Allen’s motion for summary judgment. Two Issues were raised by Dollie, (1) that Leonard failed to present any summary judgment evidence to support his motion, and (2) that the thirteen writings, purported to be a codicil to Pauline Moran Allen’s Will, lacked testamentary intent.

Summary Judgment Evidence

The Will of Pauline Moran Allen was admitted to probate as a muniment of title on January 16, 2008. On April 2, 2006, Leonard filed a motion to amend the application and probate as a muniment of title thirteen writings purportedly signed by Pauline on December 27, 2002. Dollie filed a contest to Leonard’s motion, stating that the writings lacked testamentary intent. Leonard filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that the thirteen writings were prepared, dated, and executed by Pauline, contained the signatures of the two witnesses, and complied with all the formalities of a will except for being entitled a will or codicil. However, he failed to attach any summary judgment evidence to his motion.

Dollie moved for both a no-evidence and a traditional summary judgment (attaching the 13 writings along with other summary judgment evidence) and asserted that the writings lacked the necessary testamentary intent to constitute a will or codicil. The trial court granted Leonard’s motion and denied both of Dollie’s motions. The court found that there was no genuine issue of material fact in Dollie’s contest, that no ambiguity existed with regard to the testamentary intent of Pauline in the codicils and that Leonard was entitled to have the codicils admitted to probate as a muniment of title.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the Trial Court on the basis that even though Leonard did not attach any summary judgment evidence in his motion, when both parties move for summary judgment, the trial court may consider the combined summary judgment evidence. Therefore, because Dollie had included all the evidence needed to establish Leonard’s motion, the granting of such motion was not in error.

Lack of Testamentary Intent

Dollie’s second issue revolved around her claim that the thirteen writings lacked testamentary intent. The Court of Appeals first noted that any writing introduced as a will or codicil must contain an explicit statement declaring that the writings are wills or codicils or that the property division will take place only after the decedent’s death. The Court then further noted that the intent of the testator must be ascertained from the language used within the four corners of the instrument offered for probate. Commonly called the “Four Corners Rule” this means that unless there is some ambiguity in the language of the instrument, outside evidence cannot be used to add or contradict the writing or show that the testator intended something different than what is on the instrument.

Leonard, in his motion for summary judgment, was in effect saying that these thirteen writings are unambiguous, executed with all requisite formalities of a codicil, and therefore no outside evidence of testamentary intent is needed or even allowed. Dollie disputed this however, and stated that none of the writings are referred to as wills or codicils, and contain no words evidencing that Pauline intended for these to dispose of her property only upon her death, and therefore lacked the requisite testamentary intent to be regarded as codicils.

The Court of appeals agreed with Dollie. They stated that nowhere in the writings did they find testamentary language, such as words of grant or devise, nor were there words from which a bequest could reasonably inferred. Because no amount of outside evidence could supply the absent testamentary intent, such writings were not a codicil. The trial court therefore erred in granting Leonard’s motion for summary judgment and the Court of Appeals reversed such judgment.

What does all of this mean for you? If you want to ensure proper disposal of your property upon your death, do not draft your own documents. Instead, call us today and schedule an appointment to discuss your estate planning needs.