When a widow was told by an attorney she did not need to probate her husband’s will, but learned 11 years later she should have done so, what happens? This was the issue facing the Austin Court of Appeals in Castillo v. Castillo-Wall. [Read Opinion here.]
Section 256.003(a) of the Texas Estates Code provides: “A will may not be admitted to probate after the fourth anniversary of the testator’s death unless it is show by proof that the applicant for the probate of the will was not in default in failing to present the will for probate on or before the fourth anniversary of the testator’s death.” Texas courts have held that “default” under the statute means “failure to probate a will due to the absence of reasonable diligence of the party offering the instrument.”
Roel Castillo tragically died in a car accident in 2009. He left behind his wife, Melissa and four children. Melissa was the mother of his two younger children, while his older children, Michael and Orlando, were from a prior marriage. Roel had executed a will in 1994 leaving his entire estate to Melissa.
After Roel’s death, Melissa consulted an attorney regarding settling Roel’s estate. The attorney advised her she did not need to present the will for probate because there were very few assets, all of which passed to her under the will. At the time of his death, however, Roel owned two parcels of land, one in Travis County and the property where he and Melissa lived, in Burnet County.
In November 2020, Melissa attempted to sell the Travis County property. At this point, she learned that Roel’s will did, in fact, need to be probated.
Immediately upon learning this, she filed an application to probate the will as a Muniment of Title, so that the sale of the Travis County property could be completed. Michael and Orlando objected on the basis that the probate application was filed beyond the four-year time limit.
At trial, Melissa testified that she filed a homestead application in May 2015 for the Burnet County property, and after that, she received periodic notices from the County Appraisal District addressed to “The Estate of Roel Castillo.” She testified she received other mail addressed to the estate, so she did not consider this to be odd.
The trial court sided with Melissa and admitted the will as a Muniment of Title, finding that “although it has been more than four years” since Roel died, Mellissa was not in default for failing to present the will for probate more than four years after his death.
Court of Appeals Opinion
The Austin Court of Appeals affirmed. [Read Opinion here.]
The court noted that Texas law is “quite liberal in permitting a will to be offered as a muniment of title after the four-year limitation period has expired.” The reliance on the advice of an attorney that probate proceedings are unnecessary is enough to support a ruling that the applicant was not in default under Section 356.003. In fact, courts have held that even mere unawareness of the necessity to admit a will to probate will support a finding that the applicant is not in default. Here, Melissa relied on the advice of an attorney that she did not need to admit the will to probate. This was sufficient to prove she was not in default.
Michael and Orlando concede Melissa did act in reliance on the attorney in 2009, but claim that the notices from the County Appraisal District addressed to “The Estate of Roel Castillo” beginning in 2015 should have put her on notice she did not own the property. Because these notices began in May 2015, the four-year limitations period expired in May 2019, prior to Melissa filing this probate application, Michael and Orlando argue she was in default.
The court disagreed. None of the notices were in the record, meaning the court could not review the contents of the notice. The only testimony was that they were addressed to “The Estate of Roel Castillo.” The court held this, alone, did not prove a clear connection between the notice address and the ownership of the property. The day prior to the hearing, Michael and Orlando submitted a “printout” from the County Appraisal District showing the public record view on the website.
Under the Owner section, it showed –
Name: Castillo Melissa
Mailing address: Estate of Roel Castillo, 320 Cee Run, Bertram, Texas 78605
Under the Taxing Jurisdiction section, it showed –
Owner: Castillo Melissa
% Ownership: 100%
The court found this printout actually weighed in favor of Melissa. Although this indicates the mailing address maintained by the County Appraisal District, Melissa was listed as the owner of the property. Thus, Melissa’s receipt of periodic notices from the County Appraisal District actually show that she was not in default.
Thus, the court affirmed the trial court’s order admitting the will to probate as a muniment of title.
This case is full of takeaways to consider.
First, it is important to know about the four-year limitation for admitting a will to probate. Anyone serving as an executor or helping to handle an estate should keep this timeline in mind and do their best to comply. Certainly, it is much easier (and more cost effective) to meet the deadline and avoid a lawsuit over whether the later admission was proper.
Second, if an executor thinks it is unnecessary to admit a will to probate, it is likely a good practice, if possible, to have that decision confirmed in writing by an attorney. Here, because Melissa relied on the advice of an attorney that the will did not need to be probated, that was evidence that she was not in default. Taking this step is important in the event the will does need to be probated later on.
Third, if real property is owned, there needs to be something done to change the record owner of that property. This is a critically important step to be taken when someone who owns real property dies. There may be a number of ways to go about this, whether that is a standard probate, an alternative to probate (like a Muniment of Title), or a valid Transfer on Death Deed on file. Regardless of the method used, it is extremely important to ensure real property ownership is transferred in the deed records when someone dies. Failure to do so can haunt families down the road.
Fourth, when someone dies, it is important to ensure record ownership is changed at various places. Having this done in the deed records, as explained above, is first and foremost. But there are other places to consider as well such as the County Appraisal District, County Tax Office, property and liability insurance carrier, and USDA FSA and NRCS offices, just to name a few.
Finally, this is an issue I see pop up fairly frequently. A person should not rely on the ownership designation at the County Appraisal District as proof of ownership of property. Here, although the County Appraisal District listed Melissa as the record owner of the property, that change was never made in the deed records. Her being listed as owner at the County Appraisal District did not make it legally so.