Where Does the Burden of Proof Lie in an Heirship Dispute in Texas?
When a person passes away, properly settling their estate can be challenging. While the court usually does its best to ensure that all heirs are notified and given the property they are due, there are inevitably cases where heirs are inadvertently omitted, unknown, or even intentionally left out of heirship proceedings by the family. If you believe you may be the heir to an estate in Texas, you must file documents to have the court examine your claim and make a judgment on your right to inherit.
To win an heirship dispute, you must demonstrate that the preponderance of evidence supports your claim. In other words, you and your legal team must convince the court that your assertions are more likely to be true than not. Therefore, evidence plays a key role in contested heirship cases.
What is the Difference Between an Heir and a Beneficiary?
While some people may use the words heir and beneficiary interchangeably when discussing people who may inherit property from an estate, they are actually two distinct legal terms. A beneficiary is someone who inherits property by virtue of being named in a decedent’s will or is designated as the person to receive a benefit by contract or account agreement, such as life insurance.
However, not everyone has a valid will at the time of their death. If the decedent dies without a valid will, it is known as dying “intestate”, and the distribution of their property will be determined by the court according to state law in a process known as probate. An individual who has a claim to inherit the property due to their relationship to the person who died intestate is known as an heir.
Who May Have Heirship Rights?
When the decedent has no will or some assets have been left out of an existing will, determining the identities of the heirs to a Texas estate can be an incredibly complex process. Chapter 201 of the Texas Estates Code outlines the process of intestate succession. While the details of who inherits and how much they receive will depend greatly on the circumstances of the case, some of the individuals who may be able to assert their rights as an heir include:
- A surviving spouse
- Children, including adopted children
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the relations who may have heirship rights. In certain situations, the rights may even extend to distant relatives. The best way to determine whether or not you have a valid claim as an heir to an estate is to consult with an experienced Texas heirship determination lawyer who can evaluate your position and advise you on your next steps.
What Evidence Must You Provide to Prove You Are an Heir?
The first step you should take if you are attempting to demonstrate that you are an heir to a Texas estate is to hire a skilled estate lawyer who has extensive knowledge of heirship proceedings. Once you have retained a lawyer, they will determine the best way for you to prove your heirship to the court. This will often involve filing a Small Estates Affidavit or an Application to Determine Heirship. A Small Estates Affidavit usually applies to smaller, less complex estates, while an Application to Determine Heirship is used when multiple assets are involved.
In either case, you will need to provide specific documents and evidence that demonstrates your relationship to the deceased, including:
- Affidavits from two disinterested individuals who knew your relative: By “disinterested individuals,” the law means people who will not benefit in any way from the filing of the affidavit. They will need to describe how they knew the decedent and for how long. They will then attest to your relationship with the decedent by listing family members and how you are related. In some instances, the court may allow a single individual to vouch for your relationship if it is impossible to find two disinterested parties.
- Birth certificates: Collect copies of your birth certificate and those of relevant relatives, which can tie you to the decedent.
- Genealogy research or family trees: In complicated cases, you may need to enlist the services of a genealogist or present detailed family trees to explain and prove your heirship.
- Other documents: There may be additional documentation required. For example, you will need your adoption papers if you are adopted. Or, if you were a common-law spouse, you will need to show evidence of your long-term relationship with the deceased. Your lawyer can help you determine which documents are appropriate for your case.
Why is It Critical to Take Timely Action if You Are Seeking to Contest an Heirship?
Contesting heirship can be tricky and is often an emotional process. Many family members may protest when an heir makes a claim to an estate at a later date. The court must have sufficient proof of the heir’s identity to change their judgment.
Collecting this evidence can take time, so it is crucial to begin the legal process as soon as you realize your position as a potential heir. There may also be limitations on how long you have to file your dispute. You must act promptly to protect your heirship rights and claim the assets you are entitled to.
How Can Our Law Firm Assist You?
If you are beginning the process of contesting an heirship, it can feel overwhelming. You may have many questions and feel uncertain of where to begin. A well-versed estate lawyer from The Hatchett Law Firm, PLLC. can address your concerns, review the strength of your claim, and help you navigate the procedures for obtaining your inheritance. Contact us today at 281-214-6541 to schedule a complimentary case assessment session.