In general, a will contest must be filed within two years from the date the will is admitted to probate. Click on the highlighted terms to read about the time limits for contesting a will and to read what "admitted to probate" means.
But what happens in those cases where you don't know you have an inheritance or don't know who your real parents are? Do you have more than two years in those cases? In several inheritance cases decided in 2010 by the Texas Supreme Court, the issue of how long a person has for contesting a will and claiming their inheritance was addressed. The decisions related to non-marital or illegitimate children and children who were put up for adoption. Texas has a general four year statute of limitations that applies if no other limitation period is applicable and the court applied that four year limitation period to cases where children did not know they had an inheritance or where they did not know who their parents were. The probate cases all dealt with claims relating to illegitimate children, some large South Texas ranches, oil interest and long dead decedents. The rancher had died in 1948. He was very wealthy. He left a will. His estate was probated and there were several probate proceedings over the years. His estate was distributed, taxed and closed in 1952. The probate court at the time found that he did not have any children.
The cases were brought by a woman who was born to the house maid of the rancher in the 1920's. She said that her mother never told her who her father was until shortly before she died in the early 2000's. The mother revealed that the long dead rancher was her father. The woman then filed several lawsuits in several different courts trying to reopen the old probate cases. She also filed a lawsuit to exhume the body of the rancher to prove that she was his child and to claim part of his estate. The Supreme Court said that all of the woman's claims were barred by limitations. The Court denied the exhumation saying that it was assuming that the woman was the illegitimate child of the rancher. But even assuming as true her claims that she was the child of the rancher, the Court held that the lawsuits came too late.
The woman argued that she did not know that the rancher was her father until shortly before she filed the suits and could not have filed them earlier. She argued that the Court should apply the discovery rule to her case. The discovery rule is a rule that says limitation does not start running until you know (discover) that you have a claim. If you don't know you have a claim, limitations doesn't start. The Court held that the discovery rule did not apply in probate cases. The court held that the catch-all four year statute of limitations controlled in these situations. Since the estate had been closed for more than four years, the woman's claims had to be dismissed. 08-0534, 04-0607, 08-0528, 08–0529.
The Court had previously applied the four limitation period to those children who were adopted but did not find out who their birth families were until more than four years after the probate cases had been closed. Little v. Smith, 943 S.W.2d 414, 423 (Tex. 1997).
UPDATE: In 2013, the Texas legislature passed a law that has the effect of overruling the above case. Starting in 2014, there is no limitation to declare heirship. EC 202.0025.
Remember, the two year limitations period applies to will contest unless you don't know you have a claim such as when you don't know who your parents are. If you find out who your parents are within four years of the closing of their probate cases, you may be able to assert your inheritance rights. And remember too, these cases apply the limitation period starting from the date the probate cases were closed, not four years from the death of the decedent! A probate case may not be closed for several years after the death of the decedent. Because the courts are not willing to extend the limitation period in probate cases, you should act as soon as you know or think that you have a claim.
Copyright by Robert Ray a Texas inheritance attorney. The foregoing information is general in nature and does not apply to every fact situation. If you are concerned about inheritance laws, inheritance rights, have a family inheritance dispute, a property dispute or want information about contesting a will and need an inheritance lawyer, we can help. Please click on the "Contact Us" tab above and use the contact form to contact us today. We are Texas inheritance lawyers and would love to learn about your case. There is no fee for the initial consultation.