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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 parties worked out settlement agreements. The temporary administrator asked the probate court to accept settlement agreements for the claims. The probate court agreed that the settlement agreements should be approved.

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 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.


Immediate Appointment of a Temporary Administrator

Section 452.001 establishes the circumstances under which a judge may appoint a temporary administrator. When the judge determines that the estate necessitates immediate attention, they can appoint a temporary administrator whose powers and authority are tailored to suit the specific requirements of the case at hand.

Application Process for Temporary Administration

Section 452.002 outlines the process for applying for the appointment of a temporary administrator. Interested parties can file a written application with the court clerk, providing necessary details about the deceased person’s estate. This application must be verified and accompanied by an affidavit stating the applicant’s interest, the urgency for a temporary administrator, requested powers and duties, and a description of the estate property.

Order of Appointment and Bonding

Section 452.003 specifies the requirements for the order appointing a temporary administrator. The order must designate the appointee as a “temporary administrator” and define the duration of the appointment, usually not exceeding 180 days unless made permanent. Additionally, it must outline the powers granted to the appointee and set the amount of bond required to be filed with the county clerk within three business days of the appointment, as per Section 452.004.

Letters of Temporary Administration

Once the appointee qualifies as a temporary administrator, Section 452.005 mandates the county clerk to issue letters of temporary administration within three days. These letters list the specific powers conferred upon the temporary administrator as ordered by the court.

Notice and Contest of Appointment

To ensure transparency, Section 452.006 outlines the notice requirements upon issuance of the letters of temporary administration. The county clerk must post a notice on the courthouse door, and the appointee must notify the decedent’s known heirs via certified mail. Interested parties have 15 days from the issuance of the letters to contest the appointment. Failure to contest within the specified period allows the appointment to continue as directed by the court.

Hearing and Determination of Contests

Section 452.007 provides the framework for addressing contests of the temporary administrator’s appointment. If a contest is raised within the designated timeframe, a hearing must be held within ten days. Throughout the contest, the temporary administrator retains the authority granted by the appointment. In cases where the appointment is set aside, the temporary administrator may be required to provide a comprehensive exhibit of the estate’s condition.

Potential for Permanent Appointment

Upon the expiration of the temporary administrator’s appointment, Section 452.008 authorizes the court to make the appointment permanent if it is in the best interest of the estate. This ensures a smooth transition from temporary to permanent administration if warranted.

Temporary Administration Pending Contests

Subchapter B addresses temporary administration specifically in situations where contests related to probating a will or granting letters of administration are pending. The court has the power to appoint a temporary administrator in these instances, ensuring the administration of the estate continues until the contest is resolved, and a permanent administrator is appointed.

Powers and Duties of the Temporary Administrator

Subchapter C stipulates that a temporary administrator can only exercise powers explicitly granted in the court’s order. Acting outside the authorized powers renders their actions void, emphasizing the need for adherence to the court’s directives.

Expiration and Closing of Temporary Administration

Subchapter D outlines the process for concluding temporary administration. At the end of the appointment, the temporary administrator must file a sworn list of estate property, a return.

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.

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.

The Takeaway

This case confirms that the probate courts have the authority to appoint temporary administrators and 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 lawsuits.

Do you need help with a probate matter in Houston or the surrounding area?  We are Houston probate attorneys.  We help clients navigate the probate process.   Call today for a free confidential consultation, 281-219-9090.  

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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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