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

Legal Terminology

  • Texas Estates Code, Statute of Limitations (SOL): No will shall be admitted to probate after the lapse of four years from the death of the testator unless there is a showing of proof that the party was not in default and no testamentary letters are issued where a will is admitted after the four years.
  • Default: term within the Probate Code, means “a failure due to absence of reasonable diligence on the part of the party offering the instrument.” 
  • Motion for Summary Judgment: The movant has the burden of showing there is no genuine issue of material fact, and it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Evidence favoring the nonmovant will be taken as true, and every reasonable inference in favor of the nonmovant will be resolved in its favor.

Probate Case

Facts & Procedural History

Testatrix died on August 10, 1979, and left a will instructing that all her estate be issued to the Applicant. The Appellee and his sister were the secondary beneficiaries under the will. The will was not offered for probate within four years of Testarix’s death. Appellant believed that he was the sole owner of property gifted to him in his father’s will, but, unbeknownst to him, both his and Testarix’s names were issued on the title. Appellant engaged in several oil and gas leases but was never informed by the lessees that he was not the sole owner whose name was on the property title. Appellant eventually spoke with a real estate agent regarding selling the property, which led him to look into Testatrix’s will at the agent’s suggestion.

Edwin Chovanec (Applicant) offered the will of his deceased wife, Judy Chovanec (Testatrix), for probate as a muniment of title to land in Fayette County before the trial court in November of 1992. The will instructed the transfer of the property to the Applicant. Michael Wayne Chovanec (Appellee), the son of the deceased and Appellant, contested the probate of the will in December of 1992. The trial court ruled in favor of Appellee based on the expiration of the four-year statute of limitations.  Appellant argued that summary judgment should not have been granted due to a point of error (a fact issue regarding the SOL), and appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals stated the main question at hand was whether Appellee had completely proved that the application was in default (meaning he was not permitted to offer the will). The Court articulated that wills may be offered as proof or muniment of title and are generally accepted if the proponent establishes a link in the chain of title. Here, the application provided evidence that the Applicant’s actions were not mere ignorance and established that there was a fact issue about the default of the application.  This evidence included his inheritance of his wife’s estate, his belief that the land was in his name and his sole property, and successful executions of mineral leases on the land. Therefore, summary judgment was not proper. The Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case.

Main Consideration

Is it possible to bring forth a will as muniment of title after the statute of limitations has expired?

Yes, Texas case law suggests that wills may be brought after the statute of limitations expired by a proponent who offers excuses that establish a link in the chain of title and offer a sufficient explanation for muniment of title. However, an agreement among the parties will be insufficient to show the proponent was not in default.

The Takeaway

Chovanec v. Chovanec shows that, where a proponent of the probate of a will can provide evidence suggesting a fact issue regarding their default, summary judgment is not proper.

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