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.