Trial Court Lacked Jurisdiction To Alter Its Previous Probate Order, and An Administrator Waived Any Challenge To A Damages Finding

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In In the Estate of Brazda, the trial court found an administrator guilty of neglecting to timely distribute the property and ordered the administrator to pay one of the heir’s damages for the neglect. No. 01-18-00324-CV, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 5924 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] July 11, 2019, no pet. history). The administrator moved for reconsideration of the damages order, the trial court later entered written orders reconsidering and removing the personal liability against the administrator. The complaining heir appealed. The court of appeals held that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter the orders reconsidering and removing the damages against the administrator because the original order awarding the damages was final and appealable in its own right and because the trial court lost plenary power over that order before the time that it entered the written reconsideration orders.

Regarding the finality of probate orders, the court held:

[P]arties generally may appeal only from final judgments. However, appeals from probate courts, which adjudicate estate administrations, involve an exception to the final-judgment rule because multiple final judgments or orders may be rendered on discrete issues before an entire probate-court proceeding is final. There are two categories of probate-court orders that are considered final, and therefore appealable, even if not every party and issue in the entire proceeding is disposed of by the order. First, statutes may declare certain orders to be final, appealable orders: “If there is an express statute, such as the one for the complete heirship judgment, declaring the phase of the probate proceedings to be final and appealable, that statute controls.” Second, orders that dispose of all parties and issues “in a particular phase of the proceedings” are final, appealable orders: “Otherwise, if there is a proceeding of which the order in question may logically be considered a part, but one or more pleadings also part of that proceeding raise issues or parties not disposed of, then the probate order is interlocutory. . . . [U]nder Crowson, the trial court’s order was interlocutory because it did not dispose of all parties or issues in a particular phase of the proceedings.”

Id. The court held that the order was sufficiently final: “In reviewing the relevant portions of the record, the March 27, 2018 Orders resolved the entirety of Brazda’s live pleadings. Brazda had applied for a show-cause order against the Administrator and asked for relief under Section 360.301. The March 27, 2018 Orders resolved those requests. All of Brazda’s issues therefore were resolved.” Id.

The court then held that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to amend its order after its plenary power period ended:

[W]hether the Administrator’s motion for reconsideration was a motion for new trial or not, it certainly sought either to vacate, modify, correct, or reform the final and appealable October 31, 2017 Order. Undoing that order therefore should have been done by written order under Rule 329b before the rule operated to deny the motion by operation of law. The March 27, 2018 Orders post-dated even the extended 105-day period allowable under Rule 329b(c)-(g). Therefore, the trial court had lost plenary power over the October 31, 2017 Order before it entered the March 27, 2018 Orders.

Id. Further, although not addressed in the opinion, the administrator also failed to timely appeal the original order, so the administrator waived any challenge to the appeal.

Interesting Note. The area of finality for probate orders is a complex area. This case highlights the need for trial counsel to seek advice from an appellate attorney when trying to correct or overturn a trial court’s order. An appellate attorney would likely have analyzed whether the original order was final and what the timeline was for filing an appeal and seeking a hearing in the trial court to correct the order while the trial court still had plenary jurisdiction.

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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