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Can You Prove Title After Probate Statute of Limitations Has Expired?

All we have is time. And time is limited. Our legal system is built on this concept.

When it comes to probate law, our probate laws focus on the concept of finality. They focus on wrapping up a decedent’s affairs to allow those who are living to move on.

This is why Texas law provides for a four-year period to admit a will to probate. After four years, the will may not be admitted. There are exceptions, naturally.

The Chovanec v. Chovanec, 881 S.W.2d 135 (Tex. App. 1994) case provides an opportunity to consider the primary exception.

Facts & Procedural History

This case involves a surviving husband who tried to probate his deceased wife’s will. The will left the entire estate to the surviving husband.

The husband filed an application to probate the will as a muniment of title 13 years after the year his wife died.

The couple’s son challenged the application. The probate court granted the son’s motion for summary judgment premised on the idea that the statute of limitations for probating a will had expired.

This appeal followed.

About the Muniment of Title Probate

In Texas, a muniment of title probate is a simplified probate process that can be used to transfer title to real property and bank accounts when the estate has no debts and the only assets are real property and financial accounts.

It is similar to a small estate affidavit but has no dollar limit on the value of the estate.

To qualify for a muniment of title probate, the applicant must:

  • File an application with the probate court that adheres to specific requirements as prescribed in Section 257.051 of the Texas Estates Code.
  • Swear an oath that the estate has no debts, other than any debts secured by a lien on real property.
  • Provide the court with a copy of the decedent’s will.
  • Provide the court with a certified copy of the decedent’s death certificate.

If the court finds that the applicant has met all of the requirements, it will issue an order admitting the will to probate as a muniment of title. This order will be sufficient to transfer title to the property to the beneficiaries named in the will.

The Time Period for Probating a Will

In Texas, a will must be admitted to probate within four years of the death of the testator (the person who died).

This is known as the four-year statute of limitations for probating a will. If a will is not admitted to probate within four years, it may be too late to probate the will and the estate will be distributed according to the laws of intestacy. The Texas Estates Code sets out the laws of intestacy as a default distribution scheme that applies when there is no will.

There are a few exceptions to the four-year statute of limitations. For example, a will may be admitted to probate after four years if the applicant for probate can show that they were not in default in failing to present the will for probate within four years.

What is Default in Failing to Probate a Will

Texas courts have said that default means “a failure due to absence of reasonable diligence on the part of the party offering the instrument.”

The court cases are mixed on what counts as default. The courts have accepted a wide range of facts in concluding that there was no default.

Generally, a lack of knowledge of the need to file probate or even that there was a will are sufficient to show that there was no default.

As noted by the court in this case, the courts have been even more lenient in finding no default when it comes to muniment of title cases. This is likely due to the nature of the muniment process. With muniment cases, there is not an executor appointed and no creditors to deal with. Moreover, one would think that the other interested parties would have already filed suit if there was some problem or dispute over title to the property.

In this case, given the testimony the surviving husband offered into evidence, the appeals court found that there was sufficient evidence that established a fact issue as to default. The appeals court reversed the trial court.

If the appeals court had upheld the probate court’s decision, the outcome would have been the same. The surviving husband would then have to file for a dependent administration. He would have asked that the exempt property be set aside for himself, reimbursed his attorney’s fees, etc. This would likely have eaten up most, if not all, of the value of the probate estate.

The Takeaway

Whether a party is in default for failing to timely file a probate application is not likely to be appropriate for a motion for summary judgment. This is a fact determination and just about any facts can create a fact issue that will likely survive summary judgment.

Hire an Experienced Houston Probate Attorney

Hire an Experienced Probate Attorney in Houston. Do you need help with a probate matter in the Houston-metro area or the surrounding Texas communities? We are experienced probate lawyers who represent clients with sensitive probate matters. If so, please give us a call at (281) 219-9090.

Our Houston Probate Attorneys provide a full range of probate services to our clients, including helping with real estate title. Affordable rates, fixed fees, and payment plans are available. We provide step-by-step instructions, guidance, checklists, and more for completing the probate process. We have years of combined experience we can use to support and guide you with probate and estate matters. Call us today for a FREE attorney consultation.


The content of this website is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The information presented may not apply to your situation and should not be acted upon without consulting a qualified probate attorney. We encourage you to seek the advice of a competent attorney with any legal questions you may have.

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