Texas law restricts probating wills more than four years after the testator’s death. However, there can be exceptions that would allow late probate if the applicant shows reasonable diligence and a legitimate reason to do so.
The Marshall v. Estate of Freeman, No. 03-20-00449-CV (Tex. App. – Austin [3rd Dist.] 2022) case highlights how courts examine an applicant’s conduct to determine whether late probate is permitted.
Facts & Procedural History
The decedent passed away in 1977. He had left behind a will, but it was never admitted into probate after his death. The will left the estate to the testator’s sons, but it did not mention the appellant, who claimed to be the testator’s son. When the executor found the will over forty years since the decedent passed away, he applied to probate the testator’s will as a muniment of title forty-one years after the 1972 will was executed.
The trial court admitted the will to probate as a muniment of title, which led the appellant to appeal.
Muniment of Title
In Texas, probating a will as a muniment of title offers a simplified method of probate solely to establish title to property under a will. It does not require appointing an executor or full estate administration. However, it still must occur within four years of death absent lack of default.
This process typically requires less time and expense than a full probate administration, making it an attractive option for those with simple estates.
Requirements & Steps to Prove a Muniment of Title
In Texas, the requirements for a muniment of title are as follows:
- The person who has passed away must have left a valid will.
- The will must be admitted to probate by a court in Texas.
- The proponent of the will must file an application that includes a statement that the estate does not owe any debts except any debt secured by a lien on real property, or that for another reason there is no necessity for administration of the estate.
It’s important to note that this process can only be used if there are no outstanding debts or disputes that need to be resolved through probate administration. If there are such issues, a full probate administration may be necessary.
Once the necessary requirements have been met, the will is admitted to probate through muniment of title, where the following steps must be taken:
- The executor or administrator of the estate must file a Petition for Muniment of Title with the court.
- A notice of the hearing on the petition must be published in a local newspaper for four consecutive weeks.
- After the expiration of the four-week period, a hearing will be held on the petition. At this hearing, testimony may be presented and witnesses may be called to testify as to the validity of the will.
- If the court is satisfied that the will is valid, an Order Admitting Will to Probate and Granting Muniment of Title will be issued. This order serves as proof that the will has been admitted to probate and that title to the deceased person’s property has been transferred to their heir(s).
- The applicant may then proceed to transfer the deceased person’s property in accordance with the terms of the will and court order.
The 4-Year Limitation Period in Texas
Section 256.003 of the Texas Estates Code prohibits probating a will more than four years after the testator’s death, with certain exceptions. This time limit applies both for full probate administration and for probate as muniment of title. It aims to promote the prompt probate of wills and settlement of estates.
An exception allows late probate if the applicant proves lack of default in timely presenting the will for probate. Courts have liberally applied this exception. However, it focuses solely on the applicant’s diligence, not policy concerns like effectuating intent.
Reasonable Diligence Standard
Texas law charges those with custody of a will knowing it must be timely probated. Mere ignorance of the law or personal considerations do not excuse late probate. However, things like promptly probating upon learning of the will’s existence or acting on counsel’s advice can show diligence.
In this case, the executor waited a full year after receiving legal advice from his lawyer to probate the found will. This showed a lack of due diligence, which resulted in the appeal to probate the will as a muniment of title to be reversed.
Texas courts tend to allow late probate of wills, but applicants must demonstrate objective diligence under the circumstances. Applicants must act promptly and reasonably diligently upon learning probate is required, as mere ignorance of the law does not allow a probate after the statute of limitations has expired.
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