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Beware Fill in the Blanks Will | Chris Wilmoth | Probate Law | Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter LLP

Beware Fill-in-the-Blank Wills!

In 2015, the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring the Supreme Court of Texas to make available to the public simple forms for preparing wills. In the six years since, however, the Supreme Court has not published these model wills online. If and when these free model wills are published, it will become easier and more affordable for Texans to prepare a will by simply filling in the blanks.

Of course, fill-in-the-blank form wills are much older than the internet and can be found in form books available at your local bookstore. When blanks in a draft or form will are completed in handwriting, the question sometimes arises whether the handwriting was inserted before or after the will was signed.

In 1837, in the absence of evidence as to when blanks were filled in, the Supreme Court of Missouri presumed that the blanks were filled in before the will was signed.[1] Other state courts have followed this presumption, including South Carolina (1921), Illinois (1929), Wisconsin (1939) and Montana (1960).[2] A legal treatise published in 1954 described this presumption as “well settled.” However, no reported Texas case has adopted or rejected this presumption.

There are many published cases from Texas courts addressing “interlineations” in wills – that is, handwritten (or even typewritten) insertions to the text of a will (as opposed to merely filling in blanks). When such a will is challenged, courts require testimony that the insertions were made before or at the time the will was signed because insertions made after signing are considered void. Even in uncontested cases, probate courts typically admit wills with interlineations “as originally written,” leaving questions about insertions to be resolved by agreement or subsequent litigation.

People making a will should not count on a Texas probate court accepting handwritten insertions, even if they are merely filling in the blanks. This could lead to ineffective provisions in the will or, worse, the complete failure of the document to be admitted to probate, resulting in an intestacy.

Attorneys experienced in the drafting and execution of wills take steps to avoid the issue entirely. With word processing programs, it is easy to make corrections and minimize handwritten insertions during signing ceremonies held at the attorney’s office.

If the will is being signed in someone’s home and blanks need to be filled or corrections need to be made, it is best to initial and date those insertions and refer to them in the self-proving affidavit. Even then, the witnesses might be called upon to testify in court that the handwriting was part of the will when it was signed.

If the Supreme Court someday makes form wills available to the public online, or if you use a form from a book, your will stands a better chance of being admitted to probate at less cost and inconvenience if it contains no handwriting except for the signatures of the testator and the witnesses. The experienced estate planning attorneys at FGHW are prepared to help you minimize these risks.


[1] Graham v. O’Fallon, 4 Mo. 601 (1837).

[2] Guerin v. Hunt, 110 S.E. 71 (S.C. 1921); Martin v. Martin, 165 N.E. 644 (Ill. 1929); In re Home’s Will, 284 N.W. 766 (Wisc. 1939); In re French’s Estate, 351 P.2d 548 (Mont. 1960).


Hon. Chris Wilmoth is a seasoned probate, guardianship, and trust litigator. He also conducts mediations and accepts appointments as a special judge. Mr. Wilmoth served as Judge of Dallas County Probate Court No. 2 from 2011 through 2014. He has been named one of the best lawyers in Dallas by D Magazine each year since 2018.

Is It To Late To Probate the Will | Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter LLP | Probate Law

Is it Too Late to Probate the Will?

You’re going through a loved one’s papers and come across a will. The person who wrote the will (a Texas resident) died years ago. What do you do?

First Things First

First, you should surrender the will to the county probate court where the deceased person lived. Texas law requires you to file with the court the original version of the will of anyone whom you are aware is deceased.[1] Surrendering a will to the county makes it available for any beneficiaries who might want to probate the will.

To Probate or Not to Probate

Texas imposes no legal obligation to probate a will. If a will is never offered for probate, the property of the testator, the person who made the will, passes according to the Texas laws of intestacy as if they died without a will. However, you might want to offer the will for probate if it has favorable terms, or to transfer title of any real property that belonged to the testator.   

You don’t have to go to court for title to pass by intestacy. But if you try to sell real property you inherited, the title company might require you to take steps to clear title. That might include asking the probate court to determine the heirs of the person who died and how his or her property passed under Texas law. If you must go to court anyway, you might consider probating the will you found.

Four-Year Deadline

As a rule, courts are not supposed to admit a will into probate more than four years after the testator has died.[2] If it has been more than four years, an exception permits wills to be probated if the applicant offering the will for probate provides an equitable explanation for the delay.[3]

Unfortunately, the reported cases in this area of law do not provide a predictable basis for determining whether the applicant is “in default” for the delay. This is because these cases are so fact specific.

For example, in one case an impoverished widow was permitted to probate her husband’s will, even though he died more than five years before she learned he owned royalty interests.[4]

In another case, a successful attorney with an oil and gas practice, who learned about mineral interests 14 years after his father died, was told he could not probate his father’s will. The applicant was found to be in default because the son “should have known that unexpected events [like discovering mineral interests] often happen in life.”[5]

A recent case from the Supreme Court of Texas provides another example of how courts focus on the particulars of the applicant’s situation.[6] In this case, the independent executor tried to probate the will of a deceased man’s wife because the husband failed to probate his wife’s will during his lifetime. The courts held that the executor could not probate the will on behalf of the husband because the husband had failed to do so within four years of the wife’s death. However, the supreme court also found that, in this particular case, the executor had standing to offer the will in the executor’s personal capacity and was not at fault for the delay.

Even if the person who made the will died more than four years ago, it might be worthwhile to try and probate the will anyway, particularly if the applicant did not personally delay in offering the will for probate.

If you have found a loved one’s will long after their passing, and need help surrendering it to the court or would like to probate the will, seek the counsel of an experienced probate attorney.


[1] Tex. Estates Code § 252.201.

[2] Tex. Estates Code § 256.003(a).

[3] St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum of Tex. v. Masterson, 122 S.W. 587, 592 (Tex. Civ. App. 1909, writ ref’d). The Estates Code provides that the applicant not be “in default” in offering a will for probate more than four year after the death of the person who made the will.

[4] Kamoos v. Woodward, 570 S.W.2d 6 (Tex. Civ. App.—San Antonio 1978, writ ref’d n.r.e.).

[5] In the Estate of Rothrock, 3112 S.W.3d 271 (Tex. App.—Tyler 2010, no pet.).

[6] Ferreira v. Butler, 575 S.W.3d 331 (Tex. 2019).


Hon. Chris Wilmoth is a seasoned probate, guardianship, and trust litigator. He also conducts mediations and accepts appointments as a special judge. Mr. Wilmoth served as Judge of Dallas County Probate Court No. 2 from 2011 through 2014. He has been named one of the best lawyers in Dallas by D Magazine each year since 2018.

Probate Law and Litigation | Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter LLP | Dallas, TX

How to Probate the Copy of a Lost Will

Illustration by Chris Elam

You’ve searched everywhere –the desk, file cabinet, footlocker, safe, attic, shed, and safe-deposit box at the bank. But you can’t find the original will.

You call the attorney who prepared it. No luck. No original can be found anywhere.

Or maybe you can’t tell whether the document you have is the original or a copy.

Can you still probate the will?

The good news is: Yes!  You can probate a copy of the will.

How to Probate a Copy of the Will

To probate a copy of the will in the state of Texas, first your application must include the names and addresses of both the beneficiaries and the heirs at law. While the beneficiary is anyone who receives something under the will, the heirs at law are determined by the laws of the state. The heirs might or might not be named in the will. If you are unsure of the testator’s heirs, consult your state’s probate code. After you have completed the application, you can give the application to an attorney to file with the court.

Second, the testator’s heirs need to be personally served with citation. This step usually includes a copy of the will and the filed application. Paying a process server or the sheriff or constable to serve citation can be expensive. You can avoid this expense by getting the heirs to sign a waiver of citation.

If there are heirs who don’t live in Texas or heirs for whom you don’t have an address, you can serve citation by publication.

The best approach is to get all the heirs to sign a waiver of citation. But if there’s any chance the heirs are going to oppose probate of the copy, it might be cheaper to do citation by publication.

After you have completed the necessary requirements, the next step is the hearing.

The Prove-up Hearing

Explanation

At the prove-up hearing, you will need to explain why the original will cannot be produced. Judges are generally lenient on this point if no one is contesting the will.

What the judge wants to know is that you looked for the original, couldn’t find it, and there’s no reason to believe that the testator, the person who wrote and executed the will, destroyed the original with an intention to revoke it.

When I was judge of Dallas County Probate Court #2, I heard everything from “The original was destroyed in a fire” to “It got lost while I was packing everything up to work for the President.”

You will also need to present evidence about the contents of the will. That’s not a problem when you have a true and correct copy of the original will.

The Testimony

Finally, you will need to offer testimony about the execution of the will. Typically, a will is accompanied by a “self-proving affidavit,” an affidavit that proves the testator’s witnesses have sworn under oath that they have signed and witnessed the will. The self-proving affidavit substitutes for live testimony about the manner in which the will was signed.

But wait, can a copy of a will be self-proved?

Self-proving Affidavit

When the original will is missing, the original self-proving affidavit is missing too.

Some courts let you offer evidence that your copy of the self-proving affidavit is a true and correct copy and that no one is questioning its authenticity. In that case, no live testimony concerning the execution of the will is required.

Judges who let you use a copy of a self-proving affidavit rely on Texas Rule of Evidence 1003 and case law applying that rule.[1]

Other probate judges make you bring a witness with personal knowledge of the facts and circumstances surrounding the execution of the will. These witnesses are commonly the subscribing witnesses who were in attendance when the original will was signed or the notary.

If the hearing is successful, the judge signs an Order admitting the copy to probate.

Conclusion

Every state has different rules, every court has different requirements, and every judge has different preferences. When seeking to probate a copy of a lost will, it is best to hire experienced counsel who understand the special rules that apply to copies to avoid surprises at the prove-up hearing.

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Probate Law - Chris Wilmoth - Farrow-Gillespie & Heath LLP - Dallas TX

Hon. Chris Wilmoth is a seasoned probate, guardianship, and trust litigator. He also conducts mediations and accepts appointments as a special judge. Mr. Wilmoth served as Judge of Dallas County Probate Court Number 2 from 2011 through 2014. He earned a Bachelor’s degree, master’s degree in English, and Juris Doctorate from Southern Methodist University, where he was a member of the Order of the Coif.


[1] See, e.g. Vince Poscente Int’l, Inc. v. Compass Bank, 460 S.W.3d 211, 216-17 (Texas. App. – Dallas 2015) (refusing to apply a local rule that requires “good cause” for admission of a copy).