Considering the money at stake in a lot of decedent’s estates, it is a wonder that more people don’t try to interfere with probate.
Probate is the court process where a will is recognized as being valid and an executor is appointed to administer the estate. Texas has a simple procedure called independent administration, where the executor doesn’t have to seek court approval before disputing or paying creditors, handling assets, and making distributions to beneficiaries. Other than filing an initial inventory, the executor can do all of this behind closed doors.
That secrecy is frustrating to a lot of people, especially where a big or complicated estate is involved. Sometimes a person will ask the court to force the executor to disclose information.
That’s where the concept of “standing” becomes important. A person has to have standing before he has the right to ask the court for any type of relief. In Texas, that means meeting the Estates Code definition of an “interested person” – that is, the person must be an heir, devisee, spouse, creditor, or have a property right in or claim against the estate being administered.
A person without standing is often referred to as a “mere meddlesome intruder,” a poetic term coined by the 1947 Texas Supreme Court. Not surprisingly, those are fighting words in probate court.
There are a lot of great scenarios that can raise a good standing issue. Some of the best standing controversies happen when a person dies without a will (“intestate”). Instead of being presented a written document containing a tidy list of beneficiaries and an identifiable candidate for executor, the court has to decide everything from scratch: who are the heirs, how much of the estate each heir is entitled to receive, and who is qualified, and should, serve as the estate administrator. Most intestacy cases are dependent administrations, where the administrator has to get court permission before taking any action. There are a lot of opportunities for a mere meddlesome intruder to, well, meddle.
That’s not to say that a will is a ticket to controversy-free probate. One case involved a will where a beneficiary had died before the testator (the person who made the will). The son of the deceased beneficiary tried to contest the will. The court kicked him out of the case, saying that he didn’t have any financial interest in the estate because the beneficiary’s interest lapsed when he died.
Then there are the really interesting cases where someone has accepted a benefit from the estate, such as money or land, and then tries to contest the will. That act of acceptance actually takes away the person’s standing to complain about the will.
Standing. Don’t leave home without it.
Hammerle Finley Law Firm. Give us a call. We can help.
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The information contained in this article is general information only and does not constitute legal advice.