What Did He Say? A Court Reverses A Statutory Probate Court’s Order Because There Was No Record

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In Smith v. Malone, parties litigated the propriety of certain transactions in an estate proceeding before a statutory probate court. No. 01-19-00266-CV, 2020 Tex. App. LEXIS 4622 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] June 23, 2020, no pet. history). At trial, the estate’s representative asked for a record, but the court refused. After there was an adverse judgment, the representative appealed and asserted, among other arguments, that the judgment must be reversed due to the failure of the trial court to make a transcript of the evidence. Then court of appeals agreed. The court first discussed the general requirements for trial courts to make a record:

Section 52.046(a) of the Government Code placed the obligation on Scott, not the probate court, to ensure that a court reporter recorded oral testimony. See Tex. Gov’t Code § 52.046(a) (requiring an official court reporter to take full shorthand notes of oral testimony “on request”). An official court reporter must take full shorthand notes of oral testimony “on request.” Id. § 52.046(a). As Smith notes, Section 52.046(d) of the Government Code creates an exception to the “on request” language found in 52.046(a). Subsection (d) mandates that a “judge of a county court or county court at law shall appoint a certified shorthand reporter to report the oral testimony given in any contested probate matter in that judge’s court.” Id. § 52.046(d).

The court then addressed whether this rule applied to statutory probate courts:

The Estates Code defines the generic term “court” to include “a court created by statute and authorized to exercise original probate jurisdiction.” Tex. Estates Code § 22.007(a)(2). The Code provides that the terms “county court” and “probate court” are synonymous and both include “a court created by statute and authorized to exercise original probate jurisdiction.” Id. § 22.007(b)(2). The Estates Code defines a “statutory probate court” as “a court created by statute and designated as a statutory probate court under Chapter 25 [of the] Government Code. For purposes of this code, the term does not include a county court at law exercising probate jurisdiction unless the court is designated a statutory probate court under Chapter 25 [of the] Government Code.” Id. § 22.007(c). [A] plain reading of these statutory provisions leads us to conclude it does [apply to statutory probate courts]. A statutory probate court is a court created by statute and authorized to exercise original probate jurisdiction. See id. §§ 22.007(c), 32.002(c). As such, a statutory probate court meets the definition of a “county court.” Id. § 22.007(b)(2). And the Government Code directs that a judge of a “county court . . . shall appoint a certified shorthand reporter to report the oral testimony given in any contested probate matter in that judge’s court.” Tex. Gov’t Code § 52.046(d)…

Id. The court concluded that the requirement of a court reporter was mandatory on the statutory probate court, and as the court did not have a reporter, the error required reversal.

Interesting Note: A party should always request a record for any evidentiary hearing. When no reporter’s record is filed, a court of appeals must assume the evidence supports the trial court’s ruling and summarily affirm. Bryant v. United Shortline Inc. Assurance Servs., 972 S.W.2d 26, 31 (Tex. 1998). So, if a party wants to challenge a trial court’s ruling or judgment based on evidentiary complaints, it must present a record of the evidence to the court of appeals. This is why the Malone opinion is so important. If a statutory probate court could deny a party the right to a record, even when requested, then the court would effectively eviscerate any right of appellate review. A judge may like that, but it is not fair and not due process.

Further, a party wanting to challenge the trial court’s ruling on an evidentiary matter should also request findings of fact and conclusions of law. When no findings of fact and conclusions of law are filed, a court of appeals must presume the trial court made all the necessary findings to support its judgment. Roberson v. Robinson, 768 S.W.2d 280, 281 (Tex. 1989). This may seem a little counter-intuitive: why would a losing party want the trial court to explain why the party lost? I have had many attorneys (even smart ones) make this exact point. But, if the trial court does not enter findings, the appellate court will presume that the losing party lost on all issues of fact. So, express findings cannot make it any worse and likely will assist the losing party in some respect. It should be mentioned that a party has a right to findings and conclusions after a bench trial if the party properly preserves that right, which can be a little tricky. A party does not have a right to findings and conclusions after an interlocutory order, but a trial court can enter findings and conclusions after such an order and often does when requested. So, a party who wants to challenge an interlocutory order should also request findings and conclusions.

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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