When a family member dies, you do not want to think about going to court and dealing with the myriad of legal issues associated with their estate. However, to legally care for the decedent’s affairs, the court must authorize it. In Texas, the Probate Court in the county where the decedent resided has control over issues related to probate and estates. An administrator appointed by the court has the duties and responsibilities of managing the decedent’s estate and distributing its assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries or heirs according to the Texas Estate Code. Tex. Est. Code §21.001 et seq.
There are two main objectives of estate administration. First, to resolve outstanding bills. Second, to see to it that any property left in the decedent’s estate after bills are paid goes to the appropriate people. The process for achieving these two goals involves ensuring that the will is valid, appointing an administrator to manage the process, identifying and appraising assets in the estate, paying claims against the estate, and distributing estate assets as instructed in the will or according to Texas law.
Probate is generally a lengthy process that takes several months. Texas, however, provides options for administration including abbreviated procedures. Whether your loved one’s estate qualifies for a quicker process depends on factors such as the size of the estate, whether the estate has any debt, whether the decedent left a will, and the type of assets in the estate.
Small estate affidavit. If an estate has a value of $75,000 or less, a beneficiary or heir can avoid probate altogether and seek distribution of property by filing a Small Estate Affidavit. The Small Estate Affidavit can be used to transfer personal property, bank accounts, and other property. It also can be used to transfer homestead, but not any other real estate. Tex. Est. Code § 205. To use this option, all distributees must agree to do so.
Summary Proceedings for Certain Small Estates. There is also a simplified probate process that is available for small estates where the value of the property does not exceed the homestead, exempt property, and what is needed to pay the family allowance and certain creditors. Tex. Est. Code § 354.001.
Independent administration. Independent administration is available for any size estate if the decedent requested it in their will or if all beneficiaries and heirs agree to it. All that is required is for the executor to submit to the court the decedent’s will, an inventory of estate assets, and a list of creditors. Tex. Est. Code § 401.001(a)
If the decedent did not leave a will, the property would be distributed to the decedent’s heirs based on Texas’ laws of intestate succession. Tex. Est. Code § 201. The law provides that the decedent’s spouse is entitled to inherit as is the decedent’s biological children. If there is no surviving spouse or children, then other relatives would be entitled based on their relatedness. If there are no known relatives, but someone comes forward to claim the decedent’s estate, that person may be required to prove kinship or heirship in a hearing to declare heirship. Tex. Est. Code § 202
Another painful part of the administration process occurs when probate disputes develop and they must be resolved through litigation. Beneficiaries, heirs, and fiduciaries get into disagreements for a number of reasons such as:
- Suspicion that the will is invalid
- Money or other property is missing from an estate
- Suspicion that the administrator mismanaged the estate
- Questions related to the estate accounting
- Outstanding claims against the estate
Probate litigation can have a significant impact on the course of the process as it can result in a change in how assets are distributed, it can lengthen the process, and it can be costly to the estate.