When it comes to Texas probate, there are some common disputes that can be exceedingly difficult to navigate. One of these is the situation when an executor is obligated to sell real estate and distribute the proceeds to more than one beneficiary, but he or she cannot do so as there is someone living in the property.
The absence of a lease agreement is usually the factor that makes these cases difficult. With a lease agreement, the answer is easy, just file an eviction proceeding. But what if there is no lease? This situation often arises in second marriages or when children are allowed to live in real estate rent-free.
What is the executor to do? Do they disappoint the other beneficiaries under the will or do they proceed with eviction? The answer is that they have to proceed with eviction, but, in doing so, they have to choose the correct court. The case of Sanders v. Vaughan, No. 06-21-00119-CV (Tex. App.–Texarkana [6th Dist.] 2022) provides an opportunity to consider this situation.
Facts & Procedural History
The decedent passed away and left behind an assortment of real estate holdings, including the contested property in this case.
Upon her passing, her will was admitted to probate where her daughter was named as the independent executor. The will stated that the estate was to be equally distributed to her deceased husband’s two daughters and her children.
The contested property was a manufactured home. One of the decedent’s son’s had lived in the manufactured home for the past twenty years. The daughter who was the independent executor, in an effort to administer the estate, decided to sell the manufactured home.
The brother refused to leave the property, to which she evicted him on the claim that he defaulted on the lease for not paying the rent.
The independent executor filed an eviction proceeding in justice court and the court sided with the executor and gave her a writ of possession. The brother appealed and requested a trial de novo before the county court at law.
The Appeal for Wrongful Eviction
The parties raised various arguments on appeal. The sister, who was the independent executor, asserted that the property needed to be sold so that the proceeds could be equally distributed amongst the beneficiaries.
The brother focused on a verbal agreement between him and his mother. The brother stated that his mother verbally agreed to give him an ownership interest in the property in exchange for him maintaining the property, taking care of the property’s bills, and paying the property taxes. Furthermore, the brother introduced an insurance document that stated his mother as the “Applicant-Title Owner” and listed him as the “Co-Applicant-Title Owner.” The brother also pointed to a statement that his sister had made about his mother’s wishes in letting him stay in the property. This last statement was corroborated by witness testimony in the case.
Jurisdiction to Evict
The Texas justice courts, by design, are meant for rapid resolutions concerning rightful possession of property. They frequently handle eviction cases. However, if there is no landlord-tenant relationship the court’s jurisdiction may be limited.
Absent a landlord-tenant relationship, one generally has to show that there is no dispute as to the title of the property. If this can be established, then the eviction case can proceed in justice court. If not, then, generally, the eviction case has to be handled in the probate court.
The sister in this case, acting as the independent executor, presumably wanted a quick judgment. This is no doubt why she filed the eviction proceeding in a justice court.
The problem with this is that the brother was a beneficiary under the decedent’s will. Thus, the brother had some colorable claim to the property. This created a title dispute. The justice court did not have jurisdiction for this reason, according to the court on appeal.
The Probate Rules
The executor of an estate is obligated to carry out the terms of the will. If the will provides for more than one beneficiary, the executor has to divide the estate among the beneficiaries.
Absent limitations in the language of the will, the independent executor is granted wide discretion in making decisions on how and when to divide the property. But that said, even the independent executor has to act to actually divide the property.
While the independent executor is granted the power of sale for real estate by Texas Estates Code § 402.052, the code section does not address an independent executor’s authority to obtain the eviction of a cotenant through the sale of a property.
Section 32.001 of the Texas Estates Code also says that all matters related to the probate proceedings should be brought in the probate court.
Again, these rules only apply if there is a question as to title. Had the brother not been a beneficiary under the will and also not had direct evidence (in the form of an admission by the independent executor) of the intent to allow him to have the property, there would be no title issue. The case could have likely been had in the justice court.
But given these facts, on appeal, the court held that the case was a matter that should be settled through the probate court.
The justice court can be an efficient way to evict someone who is residing in a probate property. As this case shows, absent a landlord-tenant relationship, the justice court can only hear the case if there is no valid title dispute. A valid title dispute can include a claim by the beneficiary under the decedent’s will who is entitled to a share of the property, for example. This is one area where executors, even independent executors who are tasked with ensuring the distribution of assets according to the will, must tread carefully, balancing both their fiduciary duties and the rights of heirs and beneficiaries.
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