Court Holds That Laches Did Not Bar A Will Contest

by Winstead PC
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In In re Estate of Perez-Muzza, two days before the statute of limitations period ended, a contestant filed a will contest seeking to have a court set aside an order admitting a will to probate. No. 04-16-00755-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 1859 (Tex. App.—San Antonio March 14, 2018, no pet. history). Will contests must be filed within two years of the trial court’s order admitting the will to probate. Id. (citing Tex. Est. Code Ann. § 256.204(a)). The trial court entered an order granting the contestant’s traditional motion for summary judgment and setting aside its previous order admitting the will to probate. On appeal, the original will’s proponent contended that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding his laches defense to the contestant’s motion.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s order setting aside the order admitting the will to probate. Regarding the laches defense, the court stated:

The affirmative defense of laches precludes a plaintiff from asserting a legal or equitable right after an unreasonable delay against a defendant who has changed his position in good faith and to his detriment because of the delay. As a general rule, laches is inappropriate when a statute of limitations applies to the cause of action. To prevail on a laches defense where the cause of action was filed within the applicable statute of limitations, the defendant must additionally show “extraordinary circumstances” that would work a “grave injustice.”

Id. The court concluded that because the contestant filed her suit two days before the statute of limitations expired, the proponent was required to show the circumstances of this case were so “extraordinary” that allowing her to prosecute her will contest would work a “grave injustice.”

To support his laches defense, the proponent filed an affidavit wherein he attested that although he interacted with the contestant during the administration of the estate as independent executor, neither she nor anyone else in the family expressed concerns regarding the will’s validity. He further stated that he relied on the validity of the will by paying estate debts and taxes and distributing estate assets. To support his argument that the case presented extraordinary circumstances that would work a grave injustice, the proponent stated: “I no longer have much of the property that I inherited under the Will and that remained after paying estate debts and expenses as specifically ordered to do by this Court. Setting aside the probate of the Will at this late date would result in a grave injustice to me and any other person who acquired title and ownership of estate property without knowledge that the Will might be invalid, such as the banks who foreclosed on the certificates of deposit and the Internal Revenue Service.” Id.

The court noted that the proponent was the sole beneficiary under the probated will. The court held that although the proponent argued that he acted in good faith to his detriment because of the delay in filing the will contest, he did not present evidence that the delay was unreasonable. The court stated:

Rolando merely asserts he followed the procedures required for closing the estate and argues that the independent administration of the estate was terminated prior to suit being filed. Other than mentioning the IRS and the banks that foreclosed on the estate’s certificates of deposit, Rolando does not specify how setting aside the trial court’s previous order probating the will would result in a grave injustice to him or others, besides the IRS and banks. Additionally, Rolando does not specify who acquired title and ownership of the disposed-of property or under what circumstances. Further, Rolando does not specify when he disposed of estate property he inherited — before or after Veronica filed suit to contest the validity of the will. Even taking as true all evidence favorable to Rolando and resolving any doubts in his favor, given the scant evidence presented by Rolando, we cannot say the circumstances of this case are so extraordinary that allowing Veronica to prosecute her will contest would work a grave injustice.

Id.

The court held that the proponent had the burden to establish a fact issue on every element of his affirmative defense, and that he did not show that he changed his position in good faith, and to his detriment, due to the delay in filing the will contest. Also, it held that he failed to show the case presented extraordinary circumstances that would work a grave injustice. Therefore, the court held that the trial court did not err by granting the contestant’s motion for summary judgment and setting aside its previous order admitting the will to probate.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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