Probate is the legal process of administering a person’s estate after they die. In Texas, there are several different options and choices available for handling probate matters, depending on the specific circumstances of the case.
Disputes can arise during the probate process, which can make the process even more complicated. In such cases, one of the key choices to be made is the choice of forum–that is, which court will hear the dispute.
There are several courts in Texas that can hear probate disputes, including the Probate Court, County Court at Law, County Court, and District Court. Each of these courts has different jurisdictional limits, depending on the value of the estate and the nature of the dispute.
This can cause confusion as to where parts of a case can be heard when there is a pending probate. The In re Perkins, 10-17-00311-CV (Tex. App.—Waco 2017) addresses whether an estate beneficiary can bring suit in district court for damages against an executor while the probate administration is pending in the county court.
Facts & Procedural History
The facts and procedural history are as follows. The case involved a probate dispute between two sisters The estate was being probated in the county court.
The dispute involved real estate owned by the estate. One sister wanted to sell the real estate and the other wanted to keep it.
As part of the dispute, the county court removed one sister as independent executor and appointed the other sister. It also ordered that the property be partitioned and sold.
Before the probate matter was closed, while the sale was pending, the sister who was now the independent executor of the estate brought suit against the other sister for damages. She brought suit in the district court.
The district court concluded that it had jurisdiction to hear the damages claim, which is the subject considered by the appeals court.
Courts That Hear Probate Cases
In Texas, there are several types of courts that can hear probate disputes, depending on the specific circumstances of the case.
- Probate Court: The primary court responsible for handling probate matters in Texas is the Probate Court. These courts have exclusive jurisdiction over probate proceedings, including disputes related to wills, estate administration, guardianships, and mental health matters.
- County Court at Law: If the estate involved in the dispute is valued at less than $100,000, or if the dispute involves a will contest, the case may be heard in a County Court at Law. These courts can also hear cases involving distribution of assets, and other probate matters. County Courts at Law are specialized courts that may have judges with specialized knowledge and experience in probate matters.
- County Court: In some situations, a County Court in Texas may have jurisdiction over probate disputes. If the value of the estate involved is below a certain threshold, which varies depending on the county, the case may be heard in the County Court. However, if the estate value is above that threshold, the case may need to be heard in a District Court.
- District Court: If the value of the estate exceeds $200,000, or if the dispute involves complex legal or factual issues, the case may be heard in a District Court. These courts have general jurisdiction over civil matters, including probate disputes.
The specific court that will hear a probate dispute in Texas can depend on several factors, including the value of the estate, the nature of the dispute, and the location of the parties involved.
Probate Court Has Jurisdiction Over Suit For Damages
That brings us back to this case. The appeals court was asked to determine whether the district court or county court had jurisdiction to hear the damages claim.
The appeals court reviewed the Texas Estates Code, which says that the scope of the probate proceeding includes “matters related to probate proceeding” including “an action against a personal representative or former personal representative arising out of the representative’s performance of the duties of a personal representative.”
Section 32.001(a) was also considered by the appeals court, which says:
All probate proceedings must be filed and heard in a court exercising original probate jurisdiction. The court exercising original probate jurisdiction also has jurisdiction of all matters related to the probate proceeding as specified in Section 31.002 for that type of court.
Texas law says that the probate courts, or if the county does not have a probate court, the county court has original probate jurisdiction.
Given these rules, the appeals court concluded that the county court was the proper venue for bringing a damages claim. The court ordered the district court to abate the proceeding pending closure of the probate matter in the county court.
Why Forum Shop?
There are several reasons why a litigant may want to “forum shop” and move a case from a county court to a district court in Texas, including:
- Complexity of the Case: District courts typically have more resources and experience in handling complex cases than county courts, which may be beneficial in cases involving technical or specialized issues.
- Experience of the Judge: The judge does not have to be an attorney in county courts. They do in district courts. A litigant may move the case to get before a judge who is a licensed attorney.
- Perception of Bias: If a litigant perceives that the judge in the county court is biased or unsympathetic to their case, they may seek to move the case to a district court with a different judge.
- Appeals: District courts are generally considered to be a higher court than county courts, and their judgments may be subject to more deference on appeal.
It’s important to note that forum shopping can be a controversial tactic, and it’s not always successful or appropriate. In some cases, moving a case to a different court can be difficult or impossible, depending on the specific facts and circumstances involved.
This case shows that all claims related to a probate estate should be heard by the probate court. This includes claims for damages and other claims, such as wrongful death if the estate is the party to receive the proceeds. This does not mean that the parties are limited to probate court. The parties could have removed the probate case to the district court, which would allow the district court to hear the damages claim. This would have allowed the district court to hear the damage claim.
Do you need help with a probate matter in Houston or the surrounding area? At our firm, we pride ourselves on giving clients personal attention so that we may take them through the probate process as efficiently as possible. If you’ve been named as an executor in a will or there is no will, contact our Houston probate attorneys today. 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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