The probate court gets it wrong sometimes. When it does, and it issues a final order, the parties usually have the right to appeal the order.
There are times when one or more parties do not have notice of the probate court order and miss the deadline to file the appeal. This is where the bill of review comes in. This is an appellate process that applies when the parties miss the original appeals deadline.
The Walker v. Sharpe, 807 S.W.2d 448 (Tex. App. — Corpus Christi 1991, writ denied) case provides an example of when the bill of review is used and how it is used.
Facts and Procedural History
When Ward Walker passed away, his wife, Mary Ellen, was appointed and served as independent executrix of his estate. She was not named as the executrix in his will.
She then contracted to sell her marital homestead to an attorney, Mr. Sharpe. The sale was agreed to and properly transferred.
Sharpe later discovered that Mrs. Walker was not named independent executrix in the will and reached out to Joel Ellis, Walker’s probate attorney, for help.
Sharpe filed a Motion to Confirm Sale of Real Property or to Cancel Sale and for Reimbursement with the judge in probate court. The judge confirmed the sale and its terms and conditions.
Later, Walker and Sharpe filed a separate action concerning the terms of the sale. Walker claimed that she had no notice of the Order Confirming Sale until Sharpe brought this action.
Walker then filed a Motion to Set Aside Order Confirming Sale and for Bill of Review. She claimed her due process right to notice of the motion and hearing were violated and that the probate court could not enter such order without a report of sale and citation and notice. The probate court denied and awarded Sharpe $12,000 in attorney’s fees.
Walker appealed the judgment on the statutory bill of review.
Appealing a Probate Court Order
Under Texas law, the time period for appealing a court order depends on the type of order and the court that issued it.
Generally, the deadline to file an appeal in Texas is 30 days after the court enters the final judgment or order. However, in some cases, the deadline may be shorter or longer, depending on the specific circumstances.
For example, if the order is issued by a justice court, the deadline to file an appeal is generally 21 days after the date of the judgment. If the order is issued by a municipal court, the deadline is generally 10 days after the date of the judgment.
The Exception to Time to Appeal: The Discovery Rule
Under Texas law, there are two legal doctrines that can extend the deadline for filing a lawsuit beyond the standard statute of limitations period: the discovery rule and the fraud rule.
The discovery rule applies in cases where a plaintiff could not reasonably have discovered the injury or harm caused by the defendant until a later date. In such cases, the statute of limitations period does not begin to run until the plaintiff discovered or, in the exercise of reasonable care and diligence, should have discovered the injury or harm. This rule can apply to a variety of cases, including medical malpractice, product liability, and toxic tort cases.
The discovery rule does not generally apply to probate cases, as a person who has an interest in a probate matter is presumed to have knowledge of the contents of the probate records and documents. This presumption is based on the legal principle that probate records are generally open to the public and that interested parties have a duty to investigate and protect their interests in a timely manner.
The purpose of this rule is to balance the need for finality in the probate process with the rights of litigants to pursue their claims. Without this rule, probate cases could be subject to challenges and disputes indefinitely, which could delay the distribution of assets and cause uncertainty and financial hardship for beneficiaries.
The Exception to Time to Appeal: The Fraud Rule
The fraud rule applies in cases where a defendant has engaged in fraud or other intentional misconduct that conceals the injury or harm caused by the defendant.
In such cases, the statute of limitations period does not begin to run until the plaintiff discovered or, in the exercise of reasonable care and diligence, should have discovered the fraud or intentional misconduct.
Both the discovery rule and the fraud rule are exceptions to the standard statute of limitations period in Texas, which is generally two years for personal injury cases and four years for most other types of civil cases.
When All Else Fails: The Bill of Review
In Texas, a bill of review is a legal procedure that may be available to challenge a final judgment or order in certain limited circumstances where the time for appeal has passed.
A bill of review is a separate lawsuit filed in the same court that issued the final judgment or order, and it is essentially a request for the court to set aside the previous judgment or order and reopen the case for further proceedings.
To be successful in a bill of review, the plaintiff must typically show that:
- There was a meritorious defense to the original claim or cause of action that was not raised in the previous proceeding;
- The failure to raise the defense was not the plaintiff’s fault, and the plaintiff did not have a reasonable opportunity to discover and present the defense in the previous proceeding; and
- There is newly discovered evidence that could not have been discovered with due diligence at the time of the previous proceeding.
In probate disputes, a bill of review may be available to challenge a final judgment or order in certain limited circumstances where the time for appeal has passed.
For example, a party may seek a bill of review in probate disputes to challenge a final distribution order or a final order regarding the appointment of an executor or administrator.
f you’re challenging a probate court ruling in Texas, you must file a bill of review within four years of the original ruling. This time frame is set by Texas law and cannot be extended.
Order to Sell Followed by Confirmation
The appellate court notes that a probate court has the authority to set aside its former orders under a statutory bill of review, even if a sale of land has been made under those orders. It goes on to say that the probate court is not required to set aside an order of sale after it becomes final due to irregularities or failures to comply with the provisions of the probate code (now the estates code). The court then notes that confirmation of a sale cures defects and mistakes in proceedings where the court had jurisdiction, and the sale is not subject to collateral attack.
Given these rules, the appellate court concluded that the probate court first has to issue an order of sale and confirmation to transfer the real estate. A sale of property by an administrator, even if later confirmed by the probate court, is invalid unless an order authorizing the sale was previously entered.
This lead the appellate court to conclude that the absence of a prior order authorizing the sale meant that the probate court had no authority to enter an order confirming the sale without having issued any prior order authorizing the sale sought to be confirmed.
The appeals court concluded that this claim could be raised by the bill of review, and confirmed that the order should be vacated.
The probate process can be complex and errors or irregularities can occur, which may lead to the need for legal action. In some cases, such as when the time for appeal has passed, a bill of review may be available to challenge a final judgment or order. This legal procedure may be used to fix irregularities in probate court decisions, as the probate courts often get it wrong. It is important to understand the probate laws and procedures in Texas to protect your rights and interests.
Hire an Experienced Probate Attorney
When it comes to filing a probate bill of review in Texas, it is important to follow the rules to the letter. Hiring an experienced probate attorney can help ensure that your paperwork is in order and filed correctly. Call us for a FREE attorney consultation. (281) 219-9090.
Our Houston Probate Attorneys provide a full range of probate services to our clients, including helping with disputes between heirs. 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.