“Wills, trusts, and estate planning (“WTE”)” refers to the various types of legal documents and procedures that may be used to settle a property owner’s estate after they die. Each of these legal tools has its own separate requirements, which are typically set out in a specific jurisdiction’s estate laws. 

Similar to most states, Texas does not follow the Uniform Probate Code (“UPC”). Instead, Texas has implemented its own probate code to determine how to distribute property and handle other WTE issues that may arise after a property owner’s death. One unique fact about estate laws in Texas is that not only will they generally differ from those enacted in other states, but they may also vary between in-state counties.

Briefly, a will is a legal instrument that contains instructions on how to distribute the assets and property of its creator after their death. The person who creates a will is known as the “testator” and the individual responsible for making sure that their last wishes are complied with is called the “executor”. 

On the other hand, a trust is a special kind of legal relationship formed between three parties that allows a property owner to securely transfer their assets to other parties. The three parties in a trust arrangement include the settlor (i.e., the creator of a trust), the trustee (i.e., the person tasked with managing the contents of a trust), and the trust beneficiaries (i.e., the individuals who stand to inherit the assets within the trust).

As for estate planning, this is the process you will use when deciding whether to set-up a trust for your assets or to draft a will. When done properly, estate planning can be an extremely powerful tool. For instance, it can help you select the best method to distribute your property, identify which types of wills and/or trusts you should create, and determine how or if you will be able to avoid the probate process. 

What Does “Will Settlement” Mean? 

A will settlement, also known as the “probating the will”, is a legal procedure wherein the local probate court will verify that a will is valid and that a decedent’s assets are distributed in accordance with their last will and testament. 

In certain instances, there might be a disagreement among the decedent’s family members, such as who should receive what property item, whether the will is in fact valid, and/or if a relative believes that they should have inherited a particular asset instead of the person named in the will.

Regardless of the reason, most will settlements need to be resolved by a probate court. Only in very rare cases will the parties be able to handle the issue themselves. 

What is a Will Contest and How Does it Work? 

A will contest refers to a dispute in which one or more interested parties legally challenges the terms of a will. For example, if the decedent verbally promised Cousin A their vacation home, but their will stated that Cousin B is the rightful inheritor, then this may provide grounds for Cousin A to contest the will. 

In general, will contest issues usually arise when a particular property item or asset is very expensive or is of sentimental value to the interested parties. The parties will need to submit and file their claim with a local probate court for further review. The parties to the dispute will also need to submit sufficient evidence that supports their separate claims. Without solid evidence, a probate court will likely order that the property be distributed as stated in the will.  

How Are Will Contests Resolved?

Aside from the individuals resolving the issue amongst themselves or requesting that a probate court intervene, the interested parties can also enter into private negotiations to settle the problem. This will require having discussions with the executor of the estate since they are the ones responsible for making sure that a decedent’s last wishes are properly carried out.

The parties can also choose to use an alternative method of dispute resolution, such as mediation, facilitation, or arbitration. Each method will have its own rules and procedural requirements for how to solve legal issues. For example, in an arbitration, a neutral third party will listen to each of the parties’ arguments and decide on the issue being contested.

What Else Should I Know About Wills, Trusts, and Estates Law? 

Laws concerning wills, trusts, and/or estates are tailored to the jurisdictions in which a property is located or wherein a decedent’s assets are being held in a trust. Thus, it is very important that persons dealing with such matters pay careful attention to both state and local estate laws.

Specific to Texas, an application for probate must be filed in a probate court that is located in the last county where the decedent lived prior to their death. An executor will typically have to wait at least two weeks before they will be permitted to file the application and initiate the probate process. 

On the other hand, individuals who die intestate will have their property or assets distributed in accordance with one of three methods used in the state: muniment of title, dependent intestate administration, and independent intestate administration. The method that is chosen will depend on both Texas estate laws as well as what types of property have to be distributed.  

Lastly, it should be noted that a decedent’s estate may pass entirely to the State of Texas if the individual died without a will and has no devisees to inherit their property. However, in the majority of cases involving a Texas resident who dies intestate, the property will go directly to their surviving spouse or closest living descendants. 

Are There Any Unique WTE Laws in Houston, Texas? 

There are many different ways to handle will settlements in Houston, Texas. In general, most of these methods will be the same as those used in other Texas counties and states. However, there is one WTE law in particular that is unique to Texas and it concerns a special type of probate called, “muniment of title”. 

The muniment of title process works best when a testator will only be transferring real property upon their death. If the testator also plans on distributing security assets, funds from brokerage accounts, and/or large sums of money, then this may not be the right option of probate for them. 

With the muniment of title process, there is no executor appointed to distribute the decedent’s estate. Instead, once the court certifies that the decedent’s will is valid, then the court’s order will serve to automatically transfer the title documents to the beneficiaries named in the will.

Another WTE law that is unique to Texas is that a testator will be allowed to attach a self-proving affidavit to their will. A self-proving affidavit basically affirms that the testator was of sound mind when they signed the will and that two witnesses were present for the signing. This document may also eliminate the need for the two witnesses to appear before the court during probate. 

One last WTE law that may be of interest to Texas state residents is that executors of an estate typically will not need court approval to start paying off taxes, debts, or liabilities still owed by an estate. In contrast, most states usually require that an executor obtain permission from the local probate court before they can perform any of the activities just mentioned.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Will Settlement Issues in Houston? 

As discussed above, the will settlement process can sometimes cause disputes to arise over the items of property distributed in accordance with a will. In such cases, it may be necessary for the interested parties to interpret complex state laws regarding wills, trusts, and estates in order to resolve the will settlement dispute. This task can feel overwhelming to an individual who does not have prior experience with will settlement issues or the related laws.

Therefore, if you need assistance with an issue concerning a will settlement or are about to become a party to a will settlement, then it may be in your best interest to hire a local wills, trusts, and estates attorney for further legal guidance. A Houston attorney who has experience in handling wills, trusts, and/or estates matters will be able to assess your claim and can help you resolve your will settlement issue.