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A probate court is a court having jurisdiction over probate matters and the administration of decedents’ estates. But when does the probate court not hear probate issues?

Bell v. Hinkle, 562 S.W.2d 35 (Tex. Civ. App. – Houston [14th Dist.] 1978, no writ)

Terminology

  • Intestate: someone who failed to make a will prior to their death (also, the law of intestate succession)
  • Undivided One-Half Interest: co-ownership, where there are multiple owners that own a share of the property

The Probate Case

Facts & Procedural History

Rupert Bell (Plaintiff) claimed that he possessed an undivided one-half interest of property, and that on or about March 1, 1976, H.H. Hinkle (Defendant) unlawfully entered and removed him from the property. Plaintiff filed a petition to (1) gain recovery and possession of an undivided one-half interest in the property, and (2) obtain a right to property as the heir of an individual who died intestate. 

Defendant filed a “Plea to the Jurisdiction and Motion to Dismiss,” stating he was a natural son and heir of the deceased, James Thomas Hinkle, and that, as a suit to determine heirship, the district court lacked jurisdiction in this matter of the estate. The district court dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction, and Plaintiff appealed to the Court of Civil Appeals, stating that the district court erred regarding jurisdiction.

The Court of Appeals articulated that probate courts have exclusive jurisdiction over suits to determine heirship where the controlling issues are the settlement, partition, or distribution of an estate. Trespass to try title actions (even ones in which Plaintiffs claim themselves to be the heir of an intestate and no administration was involved) are not traditional matters and can be heard by district courts. It held that Plaintiff’s main pleading was a trespass to try title action made in good faith and reversed and remanded the case.

Main Consideration

Are suits to determine heirship, when the main pleading is a trespass to try title action, under the exclusive jurisdiction of probate courts?

Where the main pleading of a suit is the trespass to try title action, it is not a traditional probate matter. If the allegations were made in good faith and no administration is needed, the district courts may have jurisdiction.

The Takeaway

Bell v. Hinkle shows that, while probate courts have exclusive jurisdiction to determine suits over heirship (probate wills, grant letters testamentary to executor (personal representative) and to administer estates under the instructions of a valid will), trespass to title suits with no administration pending/needed may be heard by district courts as it may be beyond the role of the probate court.

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