Probate is the process by which the courts oversee the distribution of people’s assets after their death. For loved ones, probate can be an extremely difficult experience involving countless administrative requirements, and it is often rife with family conflict.
There are many steps that people can take, however, to help their loved ones avoid probate court disputes. Chief among these steps is careful estate planning. But other factors can also impact the probate court experience. For example, whether someone dies with or without a will, their decision to marry—or not to marry—can carry significant consequences in probate court.
In a decision earlier this summer, a Texas court considered a probate dispute in which a woman claimed rights to her recently deceased partner’s assets based on their alleged common-law marriage. The deceased man’s children—whom the couple did not share—claimed that they were not married. Because the man had died without a will, whether the couple had a common-law marriage was critical to how his assets would be distributed.
Common-Law Spouses Right to Inherit
Under Texas’s intestacy laws, assets are distributed to family members according to a predetermined set of rules whenever someone dies without a will. Although boyfriends and girlfriends are not due to receive any property under intestacy laws, common-law spouses are.
For example, under intestate succession, the woman in this case might have expected to inherit half of the property the couple acquired during their common-law marriage. The remaining half along with any separate property would presumably be due to the man’s children.
Clearly, the question of whether the couple had a valid common-law marriage was critical.
Because of a procedural issue, the court did not reach the question of whether the couple had a cognizable common-law marriage. Had the court considered the issue, it would have looked for evidence of three elements. First, did the couple agree to be married? Second, after making that agreement, did the couple live in Texas as husband and wife? Finally, did the couple “represent” to other people that they were indeed married? Only if the answer to all three questions is “yes” would the court have recognized the marriage as valid.
Of course, if the woman’s partner had died with a will, then perhaps there would have been no dispute in this instance. A properly drafted will could have named the woman as an heir regardless of their marital status. Instead of arguing in probate court, this family could have had a quick resolution in the weeks following their loved one’s death.
Clearly, a little estate planning in Houston can go a long way in protecting your family even after your death.
Call a Houston Estate Planning Lawyer Today
If you currently lack a will, or your will is out of date following a change in your marital status, do not hesitate to contact the Houston estate planning law firm of McCulloch & Miller, PLLC to rectify this situation. Our experienced estate planning attorneys are adept at drafting ironclad wills that reflect your most important wishes for after your death. Every day, we strive to help people like you achieve peace of mind that their loved ones will not be fighting in probate court after their death. Call us today at 713-333-8900 to schedule a free, no-commitment consultation with one of our lawyers.