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Good (legal) judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment

By Leisa Boley-Hellwarth, a dairy farmer and an attorney from Celina

Texans love to proclaim that everything is bigger in Texas. And some things truly are —their hair and their pickup trucks, the Texas Capitol (which is several inches taller than our nation’s), the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush that bloom in the spring, their farms and ranches that are often measured in sections not acres, and the post office LBJ had built in his hometown, Johnson City. A recent case decided by the Texas Supreme Court on March 23, 2018, Annette Knopf and Stanley Gray v William Robert Gray, Karen Ann Gray, and Polasek Farms, LLC, No 17-0262, indicates that family disputes may be bigger in the Lone Star State as well.

The trouble all started when Vada Wallace Allen wrote her own will. Chances are that Vada paid a mechanic to work on her vehicle, sought a dentist when she needed a filling, and would not have even considered replacing her own knee. But it bothers some people to hire a lawyer when all they do is write words on paper. So Vada took matters into her own hands and drafted a will that disposed of all of her assets, the biggest being a 316-acre ranch in Robertson County (East Central Texas).

Here’s what she wrote:

NOW BOBBY I leave the rest to you, everything, certificates of deposit, land, cattle and machinery, Understand the land is not to be sold but passed on down to your children, ANNETTE KNOPF, ALLISON KILWAY, AND STANLEY GRAY. TAKE CARE OF IT AND TRY TO BE HAPPY.

Vada died on June 8, 1993, and her will was admitted to probate on November 11, 1993.

What did her son do? At some point, Bobby and his wife sold the land to Polasek Farm, LLC. They conveyed the land in fee simple via multiple warranty deeds.

What did the grandchildren do? I assume they got bowed up (Texan for very angry) and threw a hissy fit (Texan for outburst or tantrum). Then, the two who were living (Annette and Stanley) promptly sought legal counsel and filed suit, seeking a declaratory judgment that Vada devised only a life estate to Bobby, thus precluding him from delivering a greater interest to Polasek Farms.

Fee simple is a permanent and absolute tenure of an estate in land with freedom to dispose of it at will. A life estate is ownership in real property that ends at death when ownership of the property reverts to the original owner or passes to another party.

What did the language Vada used in her will create? Did her son receive a fee simple or a life estate? The trial court, the 82nd District Court of Robertson County, found for Bobby, as did a divided Court of Appeals of Texas, Tenth District. Both courts indicated the troubling language was merely a disabling restraint, which was void.

The Texas Supreme Court, however, held that Vada’s language clearly created a life estate, when interpreted as a layperson would, absent evidence that the testator received legal assistance in drafting the will or was otherwise familiar with technical meanings. Furthermore, the Court held that her will as a whole indicates an intent to keep her property in her family and to bequeath certain property to multiple generations. This Court clearly followed the cardinal rule of will construction which is to ascertain the testator’s intent and to enforce that intent to the extent allowed by law.

So, 25 years after her death, and three court fights later, it was finally clear that Vada’s will created a life estate in her son that would pass to her grandchildren upon his death. My best guess is that legal fees for drafting and executing a simple will in Robertson County in the early 1990s would have only been several hundred dollars, at most and likely less than that. I can only imagine the legal bills incurred by both sides as they fought up the Texas court system, easily many, many thousands of dollars. And how to measure the wasted time spent fighting and agonizing and plotting and scheming? Worse yet, this was a legal brawl between immediate family. Holiday gatherings, if they even happen, will never be the same. Bless their hearts.

Perhaps some good will come of this. As they say in Texas, good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.

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