How much time do you have before the statute of limitations bars a Will from being probated? If it has been more than four years since the decedent passed, can I recover my interest from their estate? Who can probate a Will after the fourth anniversary of the testator’s death?
The case of Ferreira v. Butler, 575 S.W.3d 331 (Tex. 2019) provides an opportunity to consider these questions. This case outlines the strict timeline that must be followed in order to successfully probate a Will following the death of a testator, as well as the exceptions that allow these limits to be circumvented.
Facts & Procedural History
In Ferreira, the decedent, while married to his first wife, left most of his estate to her in his Will. They later divorced, but the decedent never made any changes to his Will.
The decedent then married again. His second wife left her entire estate to the decedent.
Nine years after the decedent’s second wife passed, having made no changes to his Will or any attempt to probate his second wife’s Will, then passed away himself. While assessing her late husband’s property, the first wife then found the Will of the second wife, which stated she left all her belongings to the decedent. Because of this chain, which led from the second wife to the husband and back to the first wife, the first wife filed for a Muniment of Title.
The first wife, acting as the executor of the decedent’s estate, filed for probate of the second wife’s Will as part of the decedent’s estate. This would effectively mean that the first wife would receive an unmentioned portion of the second wife’s estate. The other interested parties who opposed this action were the two children of the second wife.
Both the Trial Court and Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the second wife’s children.
The Supreme Court of Texas had to decide whether the two lower courts were correct in their ruling to not allow the first wife, acting as the executor of the decedent’s estate, to probate the second wife’s Will more than four years after her death.
Who can Apply to Probate a Will in Texas?
The Texas Estates Code authorizes three categories of persons to apply to probate a will:
- The testator’s executor.
- An independent administrator designated by all of the “distributees of the decedent” in accordance with the Code.
- An interested person.
An interested person is, in turn, defined as “an heir, devisee, spouse, creditor, or any other having a property right in or claim against an estate.”
Time Requirements to Probate a Will
The Texas Estates Code states that after four years have passed since the testator’s death, a Will cannot be admitted to probate unless it can be proven by proof that the party attempting to admit the Will into probate was not in default in failing to present the Will on or before the fourth anniversary of the testator’s death.
This means that you have four years from the date of the testator’s death to file their Will for probate. However, there is an exception for applicants who can demonstrate that they were unable to probate the Will on time.
That is the general rule and exception. The general deadline to probate a Will is four years from the death of a testator. In the case of Faris v. Faris, 138 S.W.2d 830, 832 (Tex. Civ. App. 1940), The Court of Civil Appeals of Texas, Dallas, ruled that the devisee’s default to probate a Will within the statutorily permitted timeframe passed onto their devisee.
In the case of Ferreira, the first wife had no idea the second wife had left the decedent her entire estate until he died. This occurred nine years after the death of the second wife. This would mean that the first wife in Ferreira would have been denied her claim because the decedent failed to probate his second wife’s Will within the four-year period.
New Law from Ferreira v. Butler
The decision in Ferreira v. Butler overruled Faris v. Faris.
The Supreme Court of Texas noted that Faris v. Faris held that a devisee’s default is imputed to his devisee, even when the latter is not himself in default. However, the statute plainly states that it is the applicant who must be in default for limitations to run. This was the Supreme Court’s first chance to analyze Faris v. Faris and they ultimately overruled the lower Court’s interpretations.
Why was Faris v. Faris Overruled? The plain language of the Texas Estates Codes authorizes an interested person, defined as “an heir, devisee, spouse, creditor, or any other having a property right in or claim against an estate” the right to apply to probate a Will. The Supreme Court of Texas agreed with Faris v. Faris that because the first wife was standing in the shoes of the decedent’s estate as the executor, the decedent’s failure to probate the Will within four years of the death of his second wife passes onto the first wife, only because she was acting as the executor of the estate.
However, the Court ultimately overruled Faris v. Faris, citing the Texas Estates Code “We hold that under Section 256.003(a), when an applicant seeks late-probate of a will in her individual capacity, only the applicant’s conduct is relevant to determining whether she ‘was not in default’.” The Court is stating that the first wife could probate the will in her individual capacity as an interested person in the decedent’s estate. The first wife only learned that the second wife left her entire estate to the decedent after his death. She then applied for probate of the Will one month after the decedent died. Her application was well within the four-year statute of limitations.
The court overturned Faris which held that a Will could never be probated after four years.
The court in Ferreira ruled that the first wife was not entitled to file for a muniment of title as the executor of her late husband’s Will, because the second wife had passed away more than four years before the Will was submitted for probate. The Supreme Court of Texas made a clear distinction between a party acting as the executor of an estate versus an interested party.
Ferreira shows that an interested person’s rights to probate a Will are judged on the timeline when they become aware of a decedent’s death and their subsequent actions, not only the four years following a decedent’s death.