A will has to be admitted to probate to be valid. And there is a time limit to admit a will to probate in Texas.
Those who inherit everything under a will may not meet this deadline thinking that they do not need to probate the will, given that they inherit everything.
This often results in the other parties waiting until the time expires, and then filing for probate as if there is no will. The resulting probate dispute is before the court and the court has to decide who gets what.
This is the process for getting clear title to real estate when the owner died with a will, but the will was never admitted to probate. The court addressed this in Ramirez v. Galvan, No. 03-17-00101-CV (Tex. App.–Austin 2018).
Facts and Procedural History
Mrs. Ramirez was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She started putting her last affairs in order, which included having an attorney prepare her will. Mrs. Ramirez died a month later.
Mr. Ramirez was provided with a copy of the will weeks prior to Mrs. Ramirez’s death. He immediately began disposing of Mrs. Ramirez’s assets according to the instructions in the will and he paid off her creditors with his own funds.
The will provided that several items were to pass to Mr. Ramirez, including their residence. Mr. Ramirez continued to live in the house and decided to sell the house six years after Mrs. Ramirez’s death. Mr. Ramirez consulted with a probate attorney and was told that he needed to admit the will to probate to obtain clear title to the real estate.
Mr. Ramirez filed an application for probate. The probate court denied Mr. Ramirez’s application for probate as Mr. Ramirez had lodged the will with the court more than four years after Mrs. Ramirez’s death.
Mr. Ramirez appealed the decision, which resulted in the current court opinion.
About Muniment of Title
The term “muniment of title” refers to a summary process to obtain title to real estate without having to follow the full probate procedures.
It is available where there is a valid will, there are no unpaid debts (other than debts associated with the real estate at issue), and the court finds that there is no other need for full probate.
The muniment of title process is also only available if the applicant is not in default. Default occurs when the applicant submits the will more than four years after the decedent died.
This was the issue in the Rameriz case. The will was submitted more than four years later and the probate court concluded that Mr. Ramirez was in default for not submitting the will timely.
What Counts as “Default”?
Mr. Ramirez argued that he was not in default as he acted promptly to carry out Mrs. Ramirez’s wishes as reflected in her will.
The appeals court agreed with Mr. Ramirez. The appeals court then noted that Texas law is lenient in allowing a will to be offered as a muniment of title after the four-year limitation period has expired when it comes to default.
The court noted that ignorance of the law is not sufficient justification to avoid default, but evidence of ignorance could be evidence of an excuse. According to the appeals court, the excuse is a valid belief that no probate was necessary as assets and debts were satisfied.
Given this evidence of excuse and the facts in the case showing that Mr. Ramirez had a valid excuse for the late filing, the court reversed the probate court’s decision.
This case should be carefully compared to similar cases in which the courts have reached the opposite conclusion. In those other cases, the party seeking to probate the will had some special experience or knowledge and was held to a higher standard whereby the late will was not admitted to probate.
The case serves as an example of how to obtain clear title when there is a will that should have been probated more than four years ago, but was not probated.
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