Court Holds That Will Contestant Was Not Estopped From Challenging The Will Due To Accepting Assets

Originally published by David Fowler Johnson.

In In the Estate of Johnson, a decedent’s daughter filed a will contest after accepting over $146,000 from the estate. No. 05-18-01193-CV, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 9646 (Tex. App.—Dallas November 4, 2019, no pet.). The executrix filed a motion in limine challenging the daughter’s standing and asked the trial court to dismiss the will contest, which the trial court did. The daughter appealed.

The court of appeals first addressed whether the daughter had standing to file a will contest. The court held that “[d]evisees and heirs-at-law are interested persons.” Id. (citing Tex. Est. Code § 20.018). The court concluded:

Though Lisa Jo claims that Tia did not meet this burden because she failed to introduce the Will into evidence with her petition, we assume the trial court took judicial notice of the Will and its contents, as well as the inventory, which was in the trial court’s files. Because the face of the Will established Tia’s standing as a devisee and an heir-at-law, Tia satisfied her threshold burden.

Id. The court then reviewed the estoppel defense arising from the daughter’s acceptance of estate assets. The court reviewed the law and its own precedent on estoppel in this context:

Estoppel by acceptance of benefits provides a will proponent one mechanism for challenging a will contestant’s standing. The rule of estoppel by acceptance in will contests is designed to estop a will contest by a person who previously accepted a benefit devised under the will. If the proponent seeks to challenge the contestant’s standing by way of estoppel by acceptance, he or she must assert it as an affirmative defense. Accordingly, the will proponent bears the burden of proving the affirmative defense by demonstrating that the challenge is inconsistent with the accepted benefit. To do so, this Court has held that the proponent must demonstrate that the contestant “received benefits to which she would not be entitled under [any] will, or even under the laws of intestacy.” In Holcomb, this Court held the proponent had not met this burden because he “failed to establish as a matter of law that [the contestant] accepted benefits under the probated will over those which she would have otherwise been entitled to.” Therefore, the contestant was not estopped from filing a contest because she had not received more benefits than she was entitled to under the will or intestacy.

Id. The court concluded that the executrix failed to meet her burden to establish estoppel:

Though Tia accepted the bequest, the Will and inventory also demonstrated that she was entitled to half of a bank account and additional residual gifts devised by the Will, a fact conceded by Lisa Jo. Additionally, Tia’s acceptance was also consistent with the laws of intestacy because, as an heir, she would have been entitled to a one-third share of the $1,427,209 estate. Rather than satisfy her burden, Lisa Jo relied on a case that disagreed with our holding in Holcomb, and argued Tia was burdened with disproving estoppel. Declining an unacceptable invitation for one panel of this court to disregard the holding of another panel, we hold Lisa Jo failed to satisfy her burden, as the Will’s proponent, by failing to demonstrate that Tia accepted greater benefits than those to which she was entitled under the Will or intestacy laws.

Id.

Interesting Note: The court of appeals refused to review the propriety of its previous opinion in Holcomb v. Holcomb, 803 S.W.2d 411, 414 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1991, writ denied). Another court has criticized Holcomb as contrary to binding Texas Supreme Court authority. See In re Estate of McDaniel, 935 S.W.2d 827, 829 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 1996, writ denied). The court in Estate of McDaniel stated:

McDaniel argues that estoppel by acceptance of benefits should not apply in this case because the property he received under the 1994 will is but a small part of what he allegedly would have received under the 1989 will he wishes to have probated. McDaniel relies almost exclusively on Holcomb v. Holcomb [citation omitted]. Holcomb holds that a person who has received benefits under a will is not estopped to contest that will if the person would have received the same or a greater amount of benefit under another will of the testator or under the law of intestacy. [Citation omitted.] This holding is an inaccurate statement of Texas Supreme Court precedent on this issue. The proper test for determining whether a beneficiary under a will has received benefits which estop him from contesting that will is whether the benefits granted him by the will are or are not something of which he could legally be deprived without his consent. [Citation omitted.]

935 S.W.2d at 829. Therefore, there is some controversy regarding the merits of the Holcomb court’s opinion and holding on estoppel.

The court in In the Estate of Johnson refused to reevaluate its twenty-eight year old precedent. Rather, the court held that one panel of the court should not disregard the holding of another panel. This is an important use of stare decisis. As courts have held: “Absent (1) a decision from a higher court or this court sitting en banc that is on point and contrary to the prior panel decision or (2) an intervening and material change in the statutory law, this court is bound by the prior holding of another panel of this court.” Clear Lake City Water Auth. v. Friendswood Dev. Co., No. 14-07-00404-CV, 2008 Tex. App. LEXIS 9127, 2008 WL 5131932, at *1 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2008, pet. denied); D’Arcy v. Mead, No. 14-04-01220-CV, 2006 Tex. App. LEXIS 6850, 2006 WL 2165733, at *3 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Aug. 1, 2006, pet. denied); City of Webster v. City of Houston, No. 14-04-00353-CV, 2005 Tex. App. LEXIS 3048, 2005 WL 913813, at *1 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Apr. 19, 2005, no pet.); United States v. Treft, 447 F.3d 421, 425 (5th Cir. 2006). Moreover, if, in its holding, the prior panel applied or distinguished the higher-court or en banc precedent, then subsequent panels are still bound by the first panel decision, even if they think that the first panel misapplied and contradicted the superior precedent. County of Monroe, Florida v. U.S. Dep’t of Labor, 690 F.2d 1359, 1363 (11th Cir. 1982); Wilson v. Taylor, 658 F.2d 1021, 1034-35 (5th Cir. 1981).

So, the panel of the court of appeals in In the Estate of Johnson correctly refused to revisit another panel’s decision absent a decision from a higher court or an en banc court or some other intervening and material change in the law. This is a very important concept in Texas at this time. This past election cycle, many of the courts of appeals in Texas went from republican majorities to democratic majorities. No matter the political affiliation, courts of appeals should follow stare decisis and follow the court’s earlier precedent even if the current justices do not agree with that precedent. This is an important aspect of the rule of law.

Curated by Texas Bar Today. Follow us on Twitter @texasbartoday.



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