In addressing either probate or guardianship litigation matters, two issues must be answered before any litigation can begin — 1) who are the appropriate parties to participate in the litigation, and 2) which court is the appropriate venue to pursue the litigation.
Who is an Interested Person in Probate or Guardianship Litigation?
Section 22.018 of the Texas Estates Code defines interested persons, which are the people who may generally participate in either a probate or guardianship litigation proceeding. Interested persons under this section generally include:
- Beneficiaries under a Will
- Heirs at law
- Children of an incapacitated person
- Parents/siblings of incapacitated persons.
Additionally, the Estates Code allows a general provision in some cases for any other person who might have an interest in the matter to participate in the proceeding.
An Example of Interested Persons Under the Texas Estates Code
Sam died in Houston and was survived by his wife, Sandra, and his 3 children from a previous marriage, Adam, Barbara, and Carol. Sam’s Will left his entire estate to his wife, but Adam, Barbara, Carol, and Dexter (Sam’s best friend from childhood) decide to contest the Will.
In the example above, Sandra, Adam, Barbara, and Carol are all interested persons under the Texas Estates Code because they either receive a bequest under the Will, or they are heirs of Sam’s at law as if he died without a Will. Dexter, however, does not stand to benefit from Sam’s estate in any way, and he is therefore not an interested person who could contest the Will.
What Court Handles Probate & Guardianship Cases in Texas?
Because Texas is a very diverse state, three different types of courts can actually hear probate or guardianship matters. In the larger counties (Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, etc.), the Texas Legislature has created Probate Courts. These Courts are specially designated to hear only probate, guardianship, and trust cases. As a result, these courts are very specialized in the work that they do, which hopefully ensures the quality of the decisions and the efficiency with which these courts accomplish their tasks.
What Courts Hear Cases in Counties Without a Probate Court?
In smaller counties, the county might have a County Court-at-Law, which is also a court created by the Legislature to hear cases. However, these courts not only hear probate and guardianship matters, but they also hear criminal cases, civil cases, etc. As a result, these courts are not as specialized in the probate arena.
Like the County Courts-at-Law, some counties only have a Constitutional County Court that hears probate matters. Unlike the Courts-at-Law, the Constitutional County Court is created by the Texas Constitution, and it has very general authority to hear a wide variety of cases. The Judge of a Constitutional County Court does not have to be an attorney, which can sometimes cause problems if a contest arises in the case.
What County Do You File a Probate or Guardianship Case in?
In order to ensure fairness and access in the appropriate county to the Courts in which a probate or guardianship matter might be heard, the Texas Estates Code lays out very specific provisions related to what courts can hear these matters.
Generally, the Court in the county where the Decedent or the Ward lives or owns real estate is the appropriate county for such an action. Additionally, the case can be heard in the county in which the Decedent died or in which a Ward is located at the time the guardianship action is initiated.
Cases Filed in Wrong County Could be Dismissed
It is important to note that any probate or guardianship litigation matter that is filed in a county that does not qualify under the Estates Code provisions as an appropriate venue for the case is subject to being dismissed because the Court does not have the proper jurisdiction to hear the case.
Filing a Probate or Guardianship Case in Texas
If you plan to file a probate or guardianship case in Texas, or you have questions about who would be an interested person or what county the case should be filed, talk to an attorney experienced in this area of law. Ford + Bergner attorneys are highly experienced with guardianship and probate litigation and would be glad to help with your case. Contact us.