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Probate Administration

Broken Promise to Leave Property to Heir


What happens if someone makes a promise to leave property to another person in their will, but then they update their estate plan and fail to provide the property as promised?

Can the person who expected to receive the property recover from the property from the probate estate?

If so, what if the promise was not reduced to writing? Can the person recover property from the probate estate based on an verbal promise?

The Estate of Gilbert, 513 S.W.3d 767 (Tex. 2017) case addresses this.

Facts & Procedural History

This probate litigation involves a long-term girlfriend. The girlfriend transferred property to the boyfriend based on his verbal promise to execute a will naming her as the sole beneficiary.

The girlfriend relied on this and transferred a house and then land to the boyfriend.

The boyfriend executed a will listing the girlfriend as the sole beneficiary.

The couple split up and the boyfriend executed another will. The new will left the estate to the boyfriend’s son. Shortly after that the boyfriend died.

The son probated the will. The girlfriend requested a restraining order and temporary injunction to try to recoup the property she transferred to the boyfriend.

Writing Required for Breach of Contract Claims

Texas Estates Code § 254.004 provides that a contract to make a will can only be proven by a written document or a will stating that the contract exists and what the terms are.

This law bars claimants from inheriting property based on verbal promises made by the decedent during lifetime. Verbal promises are not good enough for a breach of contract claim.

But what about other claims? Does this also apply to claims for promissory estoppel? Promissory estoppel is not a breach of contract claim.  

Writing Required for Promissory Estoppel?

The girlfriend in this case was seeking recovery based on promissory estoppel.

Promissory estoppel requires the claimant to prove that there was (1) a promise, (2) the promisor foresaw that the claimant will rely on it, and (3) the claimant relied on the promise to her detriment.

These elements seem to have been met in this case. The boyfriend made a promise, he knew she would rely on the promise, and she did, as she transferred her property to the boyfriend).

This leaves the question whether promissory estoppel is a valid claim, even though there is no written evidence of the promise?

The court held that promissory estoppel is not a valid cause of action. It reasoned that Congress intended 254.004 to foreclose a claim relating to a promise to make a will if that promise is not in writing.

Writing Required for Unjust Enrichment?

This court in this case also considered the Estate of Wallace, No. 04–05–00567–CV(Tex. App.–San Antonio 2006) case.

In Wallace, the aggrieved party was promised land to be left to him upon the owners death in exchange for services the aggrieved party provided. The aggrieved party wanted ownership of the property he was promised.

The aggrieved party asserted unjust enrichment. Unjust enrichment allows the party to be put back into the position he would have been before dealing with the decedent. That is not what he asked the court for, however. He did not ask for payment for his services. The aggrieved party asked for the property he was promised.

The court noted that unjust enrichment does not allow for expectancy damages, which his claim for the property would be. Thus, the court in Wallace concluded that the claim for unjust enrichment fails given what the aggrieved party asked for in that case.

This leave the door open for verbal unjust enrichment claims. If the party is seeking to be put back in the same position before the promise by the decedent they may file a claim for for payment or bring suit to recover the payment from the probate estate.

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