Judge Holding Documents | Probate Law

Requirements for Trial by Special Judge

Under Chapter 151 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code, parties to any civil litigation, including probate litigation, may choose to conduct a trial before a “Special Judge” instead of proceeding to trial before the probate court or a jury, and instead of pursuing expensive arbitration.

The requirements for trial by special judge follow:

  • The special judge selected must be a retired or former judge who has served for at least four years as judge of a district court, statutory county court, statutory probate court, or appellate court; has developed substantial experience in her area of specialty; has not been removed from office or resigned while under investigation for discipline or removal; and completes at least five days of continuing legal education annually.
  • The parties must file a written motion with the court announcing the referral, waiving the right to trial by jury, stating the issues to be referred (which can be all or any of the issues in the case) and stating the time and place agreed upon for trial and the name of the special judge.
  • The motion must state that the special judge has agreed to hear the case and the fee the parties have agreed to pay the special judge;
  • All statutes and rules governing procedure and evidence apply to the trial;
  • The trial before the special judge must be reported by a qualified court reporter;
  • Trial should be held at a non-public forum selected by the special judge (usually his or her law office); and,
  • The special judge’s verdict must be submitted within 60 days after conclusion of the trial.

Costs of the trial by special judge, including the fees of the judge and the court reporter, are shared equally by the parties.

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

Dallas County Probate FAQs

Q1:  Can I probate a Will without an attorney?

Unfortunately, no.  The Probate Courts do not allow individuals to appear on behalf of themselves.  For all purposes in Probate Court, you must hire a lawyer.

Q2:  I’ve been appointed as the Executor of a Will.  What am I supposed to do?

A:  The first things you should do are (1) find and secure the original Will; and (2) contact a probate attorney to assist you. Your probate attorney will explain exactly what will happen, and exactly what you need to do.

Q3:  I am the Executor, and I have the original Will.  Why does it need to be probated?  Why can’t I just give away the property according to the Will’s terms?

A: If any of the property to be distributed is held under a “title” — such as a house, vehicle, bank account, or real estate — you need authority from the probate court to transfer that title to the new owner.  By probating the Will, you as Executor obtain the authority (by receiving Letters Testamentary) to legally distribute the decedent’s property and to transfer ownership to the Will’s beneficiaries.

Q4:  What if I want to contest a Will? 

A:  Contact a probate attorney immediately.  If you want to contest a Will, you have a limited time in which to do so; and under the rules of Probate Court, you cannot proceed without the assistance of an attorney.

Q5:  What if the Will doesn’t provide for an independent representation?

A:  If the Will does not provide for an independent representation, or if the Will is otherwise not in order, the process is lengthier, more difficult, and significantly more expensive.  That is why it is important to have a properly drawn-up Will.

Q6:  What if there is no Will?

A:  If there is no Will, and the decedent owned property worth less than $50,000, it is possible to file a “Small Estate Affidavit” to transfer the property.  If the decedent owned property worth more than $50,000, the next of kin (or other close relative) must retain an attorney to have the Probate Court legally declare the names and shares of the decedent’s heirs.

Q7:  All the deceased person owned was his or her home.  Does the Will still need to be probated?

A:  Yes.  Otherwise, it is not possible to maintain the “chain of title” necessary to protect and transfer ownership in the house.  However, an abbreviated and less expensive form of probate is available in Texas when a decedent owns only a home and no other significant property.  The procedure is called a “Muniment of Title.”  Be sure to tell your probate attorney at the initial consultation that you believe the only property in the estate is the decedent’s house.

Q8:  I have looked everywhere for the original of the Will and can’t find it.  What should I do?

A:  It may be possible to probate a copy of the Will.  Also, it may be that the decedent had a safety deposit box to which you do not have access.  We can assist you in finding the box and obtaining a court order to gain access to it.

Probate Law - Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter LLP - Dallas, TX

The Texas Probate Process for a Valid Will

The Executor of a Will has the responsibility of submitting the Will for probate.  Under the rules of the probate courts, an individual desiring to probate a Will must be represented by an attorney; and the attorney must appear in court on behalf of the executor of the will whenever a court appearance is required.  The first steps an Executor should take are (1) finding the Will and putting it in a secure place; and (2) contacting a probate attorney.

If a Texas Will properly provides for an Independent Representation, the role of the probate court (and thus the expense to the estate) is minimized — and the procedure is quick and easy.  If the Will is in order, and no will contest is filed, the Will can be probated in as little as two or three weeks, at a fixed fee.

Assuming that there is no will contest or other significant delay or complexity, the usual procedure for probate and administration of a valid Texas will naming an independent executor is as follows:

  1. As your attorneys, we file the original will and an application for probate with the probate court.
  2. A 10-day waiting period ensues while the court publishes notice that the will has been filed.
  3. After the 10-day waiting period, a hearing is held on the application for probate.
  • The Executor of the will (or someone close to the decedent whom the Executor designates) must accompany us to the hearing.
  • If the will is being probated in Dallas County, the hearing is held on the 2nd Floor of the Records Building, on the corner of Main Street and Houston, in downtown Dallas.
  • The Executor must testify as to the date of death and other facts.  We will go over the testimony with the Executor in advance of the hearing, and we will answer any questions that the Executor has about the hearing or any other aspect of probate.
  • To serve as Executor, a person must not be
    • a legally incapacitated person;
    • a convicted felon;
    • a non-resident of Texas, unless the person appoints a resident agent in this State; or
    • a person whom the court finds unsuitable.
  1. The Executor must sign the Executor’s Oath, which will be notarized and filed with the court clerk.
  2. After the hearing and the filing of the Oath, the court clerk will issue “Letters Testamentary.”  The Letters Testamentary are certified documents that serve as authority for the Executor to do everything that must be done – e.g., transfer title to property, access bank and brokerage accounts, sell assets, distribute cash and other assets to the beneficiaries, etc. — to administer the estate.
  3. We will send the following notices; and we will then file with the court clerk proof that the notices were sent:
  • Mandatory published notice (in the Daily Commercial Record) to general unsecured creditors.
  • Mandatory notice by certified mail, and a copy of the will, to each of the named beneficiaries.
  • Mandatory notice by certified mail to each secured creditor, such as mortgage holders.
  1. The Executor must arrange for a final tax return to be filed for the decedent, and possibly for a tax return to be filed on behalf of the estate.  We can recommend a CPA for those tasks, if you do not already have one who is experienced in filing estate returns, or we can do the returns ourselves, as you prefer.
  2. The Executor must contact all insurance companies with which the decedent held life insurance policies, and all institutions at which the decedent held retirement accounts, to ascertain whether the proceeds are probate assets or non-probate assets.  We will do these tasks for you if you prefer; and we can advise how to distribute the proceeds from these assets.
  3. The Executor is responsible for making a written Inventory of the estate.  We can assist in this process to whatever degree the Executor prefers.
  4. In the event the deceased person owed money to creditors, and the creditors file a valid claim with the Executor, the Executor must pay those valid claims out of the estate’s funds.
  5. After the Inventory is completed and filed (or an affidavit of completion and delivery is filed instead), and valid creditors are paid, the Executor must proceed to carry out the terms of the will.  The Executor may need to sell certain assets, but in any event, the Executor must transfer and distribute all of the bequests to the named beneficiaries.  We can assist you in that process at an hourly charge, including drafting any deed transfers or other documents that are necessary.  Once Letters Testamentary are obtained in an Independent Representation, no permission from or involvement by the court is necessary to sell any of the assets, or to distribute the bequests. However, the Executor should keep good records of every transaction; and in some estates, it is a good idea to obtain receipts and releases from each beneficiary as his or her distribution is completed.
  6. Once the terms of the will are satisfied, the process is complete. Nothing further needs to be filed with the court.