Challenging Probate Court’s Order to Settle Lawsuits

If a probate court appoints a temporary administrator and approves a settlement for outstanding lawsuits against the estate, heirs with an interest in the estate may have limited options for challenging the decision to settle the lawsuit. The Chabot v. Estate of Sullivan, No. 03-17-00865-CV (Tex. App.-3d Dist [Austin] – 2019), case provides an example.

Facts & Procedural History

The decedent died and his holographic will was admitted as muniment of title. After the will was probated, a minor brought suit against the estate alleging that the decedent had sexually abused him when he was a minor. Another potential heir, the decedent’s half sister, challenged the holographic will.

The court appointed a temporary administrator for the estate. The temporary administrator asked the probate court to accept settlement agreements for the claims. The probate court agreed.

The decedent’s half-sister appealed the decision, arguing that the appointment of the temporary administrator was void and, as a result, the settlement agreements were void.

Temporary Administration

Texas law allows the probate court to appoint a temporary administrator. Temporary probate administration is intended to allow the court to appoint someone to help protect estate property.

Temporary administration is usually needed if it is likely that the estate property will be misappropriated or neglected before a personal representative can be appointed under a full probate. It can also be useful if there is a will contest that needs to be resolved before the court can identify which parties are best to serve.

Bill of Review to Challenge Appointment

The decedent’s half-sister’s argument focused on the probate court admitting the will to probate. She argued that the order concluding that there was no need for further probate administration was an order that had to be timely appealed.

According to the half-sister, this order could have only been appealed by the claimants by filing a bill of review and no bill of review had been filed. A bill of review is essentially an appeal. It differs from a will contest that challenges the admission of the will with the probate court.

Building on this argument, the half-sister argued that the court did not have jurisdiction and did not have the authority to appoint the temporary administrator absent a bill of review being filed.

Is a Bill of Review Required?

The appeals court concluded that a bill of review did not need to be filed for the claims. Instead, the appeals court concluded that the order that no administration was needed was merely a finding necessary for probating the will. It was not a distinct and independent judgment that had to be appealed.

This case confirms that the probate courts have the authority to appoint temporary administrators and to authorize lawsuit settlements. The approval for a lawsuit settlement may still be appealed, but the ability to do so is limited. This case confirms that one cannot do so by challenging the appointment of the temporary administrator.

This may be problematic in some cases. It can leave would-be heirs in the position of being a beneficiary to an estate that has little to no remaining assets. As in this case, the decedent’s half-sister may prevail in her will contest only to find that there are no assets left in the estate, as the assets have already been expended to settle law suits.

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