When a loved one dies, the surviving family members often find that the decedent’s will included terms that they do not agree with. This may be due to family dynamics, a sense of entitlement, or simply a differing view of who should inherit. These situations often lead to probate disputes. The In re Estate of Hunt, No. 01-19-00216-CV (Tex. App.–Houston [1st] 2020) provides a prime example involving a dispute over whether the term “personal property” includes a bank account.
Facts & Procedural History
This is s probate litigation case involving a dispute over the language included in the decedent’s will.
The decedent’s will included the following language:
I hereby make the following specific bequests:
1. I give all of my family photos, furnishings and mementos inherited from our grandparents or our parents to Tracy Eileen Mitchell;
2. I give all of my remaining household and personal property to Arabia Vargas.
I hereby give all of the remainder of the property, wherever located, which I may own at the time of my death as follows[:] Fifty percent (50%) to Tracy Eileen Mitchell and her issue, per stirpes and not per capita; and Fifty percent (50%) to Lina Schmidt Hollis and Andrea Wendy Vasquez, and each of their issue, per stirpes and not per capita.
Arabia is the decedent’s life partner. Tracy is the decedent’s sister.
In probating the will, Arabia and Tracy could not agree how the above-quoted language in the will applied to her bank account.
Arabia concluded that “personal property” included the decedent’s bank account. Tracy concluded that this term did not include the bank account.
The probate court found for Arabia, concluding that the term “personal property” included the bank account.
Defined Terms Are Given Their Ordinary Meaning
In reviewing the case, the appeals court starts with the general rule that a defined term is to be given its ordinary meaning.
The term “personal property” is specifically defined in the Estates Code. And the courts in Texas have long held that this term includes all property other than real estate.
It then noted the longstanding rule in Texas that “when a will is unambiguous, we must enforce its terms as written and cannot reinterpret them based on interpretive aids or canons of construction.”
Based on these rules, the appeals court concluded that the decedent’s bank account was personal property and passed to Arabia under the terms of the will.
Construing the Terms of the Will
Tracy’s attorney argued that the will was ambiguous–which necessitated applying the rules of construction to re-write the terms of the will.
Specifically, Tracy argued that the combined bequest of household and personal property limits the latter category to tangible items.
The appeals court did not agree that by including household and personal property in one sentence limited the term “personal property” to tangible property. The court noted the word “all” in the will. The term “all” suggests that the decedent intended to give all of her personal property to Arabia.
Tracy also argued that reading the term “personal property” broadly would make the bequest of her “remaining household” property superfluous. Put another way, if all property was disposed of to Arabia, there would be no need to include a second term saying that whatever is left goes to Tracy.
The appeals court did not agree with this argument either. It noted that the “remaining household” language would remain superfluous even if the court adopted Tracy’s view.
An Example of Will Construction Suits
This case is a prime example of probate disputes. The decedent left a will that expressed her intent to transfer ‘”all” of her “personal property” to her life partner. The decedent’s sister did not agree with this interpretation, so she asked the court to in essence read the will in a way other than the way it was written. The result was a probate dispute for the courts.
This may have been avoided if the decedent’s estate plan had been shared with the family members in advance.
But even then, while probate courts in Texas have the authority to interpret wills, they do not have the ability to re-write will after the fact. They are limited to the language included in the will. But this does not stop family members from raising disputes such as this case.
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