Texas Supreme Court Rules – Intentional Interference with Inheritance Rights is not a cause of action in Texas.
The Texas Supreme Court made a ruling last week that may change the way we look at inheritance rights in Texas. In many family disputes concerning the estates of a loved one, there is a claim that a will is not valid due to lack of capacity or undue influence. But what if there is no will to probate because the perpetrator had the Deceased sign a deed transfer ring their house, or made them beneficiaries on bank accounts or life insurance policies, all which make probate unnecessary.
In May of 2017, the Texas Supreme Court refused to rule on whether Texas has a Tortious Interference with Inheritance Rights cause of action. But in an about face, this month they took the plunge in Archer v. Anderson an appeal out of the 3rd Court of Appeals of Texas. In that case, the Texas Supreme Court found that the tort of interference with inheritance is not recognized in Texas.
Intentional Interference with Inheritance means one who by fraud, duress or other tortious means intentionally prevents another from receiving from a third person an inheritance or gift that he would otherwise have received is subject to liability to the other for loss of the inheritance or gift. (Restatement of Torts Section 774B) However, not all restatements are made into law in all states and Texas has never drafted a specific law on this issue.
The overall point of the Texas Supreme Court was that the testator (Decedent) has the right to dispose of their assets anyway they want. However, if they lacked the capacity, were coerced or mistaken in their bequest or gift then the courts are able to undo the bequest or gift. Also the Court already has broad authority to rectify inequalities using a constructive trust in an action for restitution to prevent unjust enrichment. These specialized doctrines and procedures in the probate court help distinguish the true intent of the testator. Therefore the cause of action of Intentional Interference with Inheritance is not needed.
While the court is correct that the Archers had other adequate remedies to recover against the perpetrators, those remedies do not allow them to recover attorney fees and court costs. So the moral of the story is take care of your loved ones, stay in their lives and make sure no one takes advantage of them!
There are several things you can do now while you are alive to prevent your loved ones from having to probate. This is especially important if you are married and your spouse will be your sole beneficiary. This is not to say you should not have a will. Everyone should have a will just in case some asset comes up that we didn’t plan for properly or in the event you die accidentally and litigation ensues.
- Name Beneficiaries – you can name your beneficiary on various types of accounts, including bank accounts, life insurance, retirement accounts, and investment accounts. Review these accounts every few years to ensure they have the beneficiary of your choosing.
- Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship – when you purchase a house ask the title company have the deed read “joint with right of survivorship” which transfers the house to your spouse immediately upon death. If you already own your house, you and your spouse can execute a new deed that makes the ownership “joint with right of survivorship” so that the house is automatically transferred upon death.
- Living Trust – while this may seem to be the most straight forward approach, only an attorney can tell you if you really need one. Many people get living trusts and never properly fund them so probate turns out to be necessary anyways. Also a living trust does not protect you from liability as many people think it does.
- Transfer on Death Deed – this document is a new statutory document created by the Texas Legislator to help protect your real estate. While this document is a deed, it is not a traditional deed, in that it does not immediately transfer ownership to your beneficiary but allows you to instead retain all ownership rights. Upon your death the real estate automatically transfers ownership to your named beneficiaries. These types of deeds are used mostly by people wanting to transfer their home to their children or grandchildren upon their death.
For more ideas and ways to plan so your family can avoid probate court contact your attorney! Remember that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
After losing their spouse, many people don’t contact an probate attorney because they believe that everything just goes to them immediately. But this way of thinking may cause more harm down the road. Nothing in life is absolute except death and taxes, so at least consult an attorney to make sure there is nothing you should do or to find out what your time limits are with regards to probate. Here are a few cases where waiting caused more problems:
- Jane Doe dies and her husband Don doesn’t probate her will. Four years pass, and then Don Doe dies. Since Jane’s will was not probated within the 4 year statutes the only alternative is to probate as “muniment of title” to clear title to the house or cars. In this case there is no formal probate of Jane’s estate which may create problems with certain asset at financial institutions and may force the beneficiaries to pay all debts prior to probating.
- Jane Doe dies and her will isn’t probated because her husband, Don Doe, doesn’t want to waste his money. Years later Don learns that there are assets in both of their names that need to be probated. Jane’s will can not be probated after 4 years because Don is the one at fault for not probating. Don goes to an attorney and finds out that since Jane had children from a prior marriage, they take her 1/2 instead of him.
- Sarah Jones dies and she does not have a will. Four years pass, and Mike Jones tries to sell their house. Just prior to closing on the house, Mike finds out that the house is still in both his and Sarah’s name. Mike contacts an attorney to probate and must wait more than 30 days to get the probate finalized, so he loses the sale on the house.
As you can see there are many different situations that warrant consulting an attorney to ensure probate is not necessary after the death of a loved one. While there are many different reasons that may take you into probate court, there are ways to avoid probate court such as:
When there is a will:
Muniment of Title – while this process requires you to file in probate court, you are not opening a formal administration so once the court signs an order you are done with the probate court. So if you find that all the deceased person’s unsecured debts are paid and you just need to transfer title to the assets, have your attorney probate the will as a “muniment of title” which transfers title only and does not open a formal estate.
When there is no will:
Affidavit of Heirship – when there is no will, there is an informal process of having an “affidavit of heirship” prepared by an attorney and filed in the county real property records. This is not a costly process and it will benefit the parties in the long run. Don’t try to do one yourself, as mistakes will end up costing more in the long run. Do this now rather than later because witnesses may die, move away, not remember, etc. This document will clear up title to property and vehicles so that the parties can move forward in life and not be held back when trying to sell such assets.
Determination of Heirship – This process is similar to the Affidavit of Heirship above, but it involves going to the probate court, having them appoint an attorney ad litem to verify the heirship information and signing an order on who the heirs are in an estate. This process may be required of certain financial institutions that do not want to rely upon a “Affidavit of Heirship” and who may want the Judge to make a formal finding.
Small Estate Affidavit – This process is for very small estates under $75,000.00 (not counting exempt assets) or when trying to transfer the decedent’s homestead to their spouse. The form is prepared and filed with the probate court. The judge will then approve the Small Estate Affidavit to allow the transfer of assets to occur. Keep in mind that this form will not transfer title to real property (other than the homestead), so if there is no spouse (so no homestead) or other rental real estate then this form won’t work.
The Texas Legislature adopted a new Medical Power of Attorney form, effective as of January 1, 2014. Click here to download the Medical Power of Attorney
NOTICE: This form is being provided for convenience only and is not intended to be construed as offering legal advise. You should always consult an attorney about giving someone your power of attorney!
1. The Business Owner. A properly created business has exhaustive company agreements, succession planning and creditor protection. Unless you have every confidence in your documents, you may want to consider a pre-nup to set up agreements between you and your spouse. I see many family-owned businesses severely disrupted by divorce, especially by the temporary orders phase. Image a couple in crises and both spouses are signatories on the company checking account. Perhaps each believes he/she runs the business and should be able to continue to run it exclusive to the other spouse. Where does a court begin to do what’s in the marital estate’s best interest? It is much easier on the Court if there is an agreement in place.
2. The Second Wife and Step-Mother. The reason wife No. 2 needs a pre-nup has everything to do with the probate code. When a spouse dies without a will and…
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These are 13 things I think all associates should know when starting out in a firm. I hope they help you along your way to becoming a dynamic attorney.
- Respect your Firm. Your firm’s reputation has taken years to establish or is just getting started but either way its reputation is important. Keep in mind that how you act with people in business and social settings can affect the firm’s reputation.
- Respect the Staff. The staff is your most valuable asset. Many times they know more than us and can help you a great deal. As attorneys we sometimes get so busy we forget to “be nice” when asking for help but it really goes a long way.
- Respect the Courts. The court staff is your second most valuable asset. They decide when your hearing is set, when your case is set, help you when you make a mistake, and have the Judge’s ear. Remember the Judge hired them, not some personnel manager. Don’t be dismissive or complain about or to court staff. They aren’t going anywhere and anything you tell them goes straight back to the Judge. Also don’t ever bad mouth opposing counsel because they might just be good friends with the Judge.
- Look the Part. As attorneys we need to set an example for our staff, which means dressing like a professional. When you dress casual, it gives the staff and other attorneys the impression that you don’t take your job seriously. So if you wouldn’t wear it to court then don’t wear it to the office.
- Just do it. When a partner of the firm asks you to handle legal work for them, you just do it. You find a way without making excuses! When you are asked to work on something, then find out when the attorney wants it and when the absolute deadline is so you can plan accordingly. Then get it done.
- You are never 100% right. When a senior attorney asks you a legal question that you are not 100% sure of (which is always) say “I think …..________(fill in the blank with what you think) but let me confirm that for you.” Then go confirm it because the law may have changed since the last time you looked at the issue and you would never want to steer an attorney in the wrong direction.
- Being busy is no substitute for being productive. Billable hours are important, but the most valued associates are those who not only bill, but get the job done correctly. Be a finisher.
- Don’t make excuses. You may get an occasional unfair review, or you may not get along with a particular partner, but law firms are meritocracies. You must own up to your shortcomings, failures and disappointments and learn from them.
- Be the associate everyone thinks they need. You have no idea how much partners value good associates and detest bad associates. They always notice a bad attitude, how you treat the staff, subpar work or a disinterest in your job.
- Learn to develop your own clients. You’ll never develop clients sitting behind your desk. You may not consider yourself a “schmoozer” or think that networking is important. Get over it. So you were told that generating business is not important as an associate? How do you think you’re going to stack up when being reviewed against your colleague with a book of business? If you don’t know how to get started, ask someone!
- Office Hours mean something! If the office has set hours then make sure you are ALWAYS in the office during that time, no exceptions! Otherwise how can a senior attorney utilize you?
- Take vacations. Enjoy your time off, recharge your batteries, and reconnect with family and friends. Just kick butt before you leave and when you get back! Make sure the managing partner and any other attorneys you work with on a regular basis knows you are out but always reachable.
- Stay confident. You are going to screw something up because no one is perfect. You may get reprimanded for it, but you need to stay confident and aggressive. A timid, defensive-minded lawyer will be stressed out, dislike her job and not be very good at it.
I was recently asked a specific question as to how the Transfer on Death deed affects the spouses homestead rights.
Example: A party is married and they execute a transfer on death deed to their children on their separate property which is their homestead.
The deed would not displace the spouse at death because the homestead right is attached to the separate property and community property. Therefore, while the children might own the property upon their parent’s death, the spouse has the right to live in the house.