Harold never wanted to spend the time or money making out a will. He was fond of saying “Why would I want to waste my money? It won’t be my problem – I’ll be dead. Let my relatives figure it out.”
Hahaha. Good one, Harold.
What Happens If You Die Without A Will In Texas
It was only after Harold was dead, his assets were frozen, and his creditors were clamoring at the door that Harold’s relatives concluded his folksy philosophy was really not that funny. His relatives, you see, had involuntarily been thrust into the twilight world of probate of heirship and dependent administration proceedings and they did not like it one little bit.
When Harold died, he became an intestate decedent. That meant he died owning property but did not leave a will. As a result, Texas wrote a will for him by defining who would be his heirs. Now a Judge had to make a formal declaration that identified specific heirs and the interest that each heir had in Harold’s estate.
How To Determine Heirship In An Estate
To make that happen, someone had to file an application to determine heirship in a court that had jurisdiction. The application had to identify each heir, his or her relationship to Harold, and whether the heir was an adult or a minor. All of Harold’s children, born or adopted, formally recognized or not, had to be named. The application also had to give a history of Harold’s marriages. Finally, the application had to list everything Harold owned at the time of his death.
An heirship is not a secret type of proceeding. Harold could not have planned a better way to make sure every sordid detail of his past was made public and discussed. Common-law marriages, divorces, children born outside of the marriage, siblings, half-siblings, parents – every person who could raise a claim as an heir, and every person who co-owned real property with Harold, had to be named as a party and formally served.
Those were the known heirs. An attorney ad litem was required to be appointed to represent the unknown heirs. The attorney ad litem conducted an independent investigation into potential heirs by interrogating witnesses and relatives and searching public records.
At the final hearing, the applicant had to bring two disinterested witnesses to testify about Harold’s heirs and the family history. Only after a full trial could the Judge issue a ruling that set forth each heir and his or her share of the estate.
That was the first step. Now comes the complicated part.
What Is A Dependent Administration?
Harold’s estate still needed to be settled. Someone had to have authority to secure and safekeep the assets, pay the debts and make a final distribution to the heirs. Thus, the court had to open a probate administration. Because Harold did not leave a will with the magic language, the estate defaulted to a laborious process known as dependent administration. Known as the “mother may I” of probate, the court-appointed administrator had to receive the court’s permission each time he wanted to take an action.
Had Harold died with a valid will, the probate would have been simple. Instead, Harold did it his way, which led to an expensive, lengthy and very public court action.
Learn more in the remainder of our probate series:
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Virginia Hammerle is an attorney with Hammerle Finley Law Firm whose practice includes probate law, estate planning and contested litigation. To receive her newsletter contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.