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In re Estate of Rodriguez

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

March 2, 2017

IN THE ESTATE OF JOSE M. RODRIGUEZ, DECEASED

         On appeal from the County Court at Law No. 3 of Cameron County, Texas.

          Before Justices Contreras, Benavides, and Longoria Memorandum

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORA L. LONGORIA, Justice

         This appeal concerns the Last Will and Testament of decedent Jose M. Rodriguez ("Rodriguez"). Appellant Celia Ortega ("Celia") challenges a jury verdict against her in a will contest brought by her brother, appellee Juan A. Rodriguez ("Juan"). We affirm.

         I. Background

         A. Rodriguez's Retirement

         Rodriguez retired from his job in Houston in 1987 with plans to return to Brownsville. Before leaving, Rodriguez conveyed his house in Houston to his daughter Celia and her husband, Angel Ortega ("Angel"). In return, the Ortegas conveyed to Rodriguez a house they owned on Tecuan Street in Brownsville. Rodriguez lived there after his return and worked as a taxi driver. He also owned a pesera-a type of taxi-in Matamoros, Mexico which he rented to an operator for a fee.

         Multiple witnesses who knew Rodriguez during this time in his life described him as a "strong" man who was not easily influenced. When describing Rodriguez's relationship with his nine children, Juan testified that "[w]e all respected dad, and if he said that something would be one way, we would all do as he said." Celia, Angel, and Artemio Caballero, the husband of one of Rodriguez's nieces, gave similar testimony regarding Rodriguez's personality and his relationship with his children.

         The record reflects that Rodriguez was a generous man who frequently made gifts or loans to his children and others. Rodriguez kept written records of his transactions, even those which involved his children. Rodriguez would carefully note any amount that was repaid and sign his name next to it.

         B. The Ortegas Return to Brownsville

         In 1997, the operator of Rodriguez's pesera died, and Rodriguez invited the Ortegas to return home so that Angel could operate the business. Angel accepted, and the Ortegas moved back to Brownsville and lived with Rodriguez. The Ortegas later purchased a lot located on Sinaloa Street using funds Rodriguez acquired from the sale of land he owned in Matamoros.[1] The Ortegas built a new house on the lot (the "Sinaloa Property") and included a bedroom for Rodriguez in case he wanted to live with them.

         In April 2003, Rodriguez sold the house on Tecuan Street for $50, 350 and moved in with the Ortegas on Sinaloa Street. Both Angel and Celia testified that Rodriguez decided the next year that he wanted to buy a house of his own. After Rodriguez was unable to find a house he liked in his price range, Angel suggested that Rodriguez purchase the Sinaloa Property for the same price he received from the sale of his house on Tecuan Street. According to Angel and Celia, Rodriguez agreed.

         Celia and Angel accompanied Rodriguez to the office of attorney Noe Garza to sign a deed transferring title to the property. Even though Angel and Celia each testified that the transaction was a sale, the deed recited that the consideration was "[l]ove of, and affection for, Grantee." Attorney Garza testified that he had no knowledge that any money was being exchanged as part of the transfer, and Celia agreed she never informed Garza that the transfer was part of a sale. Rodriguez immediately executed a second deed transferring title of the Sinaloa Property back to the Ortegas while reserving a life estate for himself. Attorney Garza explained that he recommended that Rodriguez reserve a life estate so that he would have an interest in the Sinaloa Property. The second deed contained identical language regarding the consideration for the transfer.

         During the same visit with Garza, Rodriguez also executed a self-proving will naming Celia as his sole beneficiary and a separate "declaration" stating that he wished Celia to be his guardian should he ever become incapacitated. Angel and Celia testified that Rodriguez brought up the idea of making a will for the first time in Garza's office, and that as far as they were concerned the only purpose of the visit was to transfer title to the Sinaloa Property.

         Celia had been a signatory on Rodriguez's checking account at IBC Bank since the Ortegas returned to Brownsville in 1997. The month after the visit with Garza, Celia obtained a check from Rodriguez's account in the amount of $50, 681.77 made out to Rodriguez or herself. She used the check to open a savings account in her and Rodriguez's names at Bank of America. Celia also used a $2, 000 check she wrote on the same IBC account to open a joint checking account at the same bank. Celia testified that she opened the new accounts on Rodriguez's instruction because he was experiencing "problems" with IBC Bank, but she could not explain the nature of the problems. Celia later gradually moved the $50, 681.77 into another account solely in her name. The Ortegas used the funds to pay for construction of their new home on a lot they owned in Los Fresnos, Texas.

         The Ortegas moved into their new home in Los Fresnos in 2008, but Rodriguez remained at the Sinaloa Property. According to Celia, Rodriguez did not go with them to Los Fresnos because his other children stated they would refuse to visit him there. Around this time, Celia wrote two checks on Rodriguez's account at IBC Bank that were returned for insufficient funds. Rodriguez removed Celia as a signatory on his account and substituted her sister, Maria. Rodriguez became ill with kidney disease the same year but continued to work until he was admitted to a nursing home in 2009. Rodriguez died on April 10, 2010, at the age of eighty-five.

         C. Legal Proceedings

         Celia applied to admit Rodriguez's will to probate in May 2011. Juan filed an objection, alleging that Rodriguez lacked testamentary capacity or, alternatively, executed the will through undue influence. Celia moved for summary judgment on both issues. The trial court granted summary judgment to her on the issue of testamentary capacity but denied it on the issue of undue influence.

         The issue of undue influence was tried to a jury. Juan's theory was that Celia had gained complete control over Rodriguez's affairs and used that influence to obtain all of his property for herself. Celia's theory was that Rodriguez was a "man to give orders" rather than obey them, and who gave all of his property to Celia because that was his own desire. The jury found that Rodriguez executed both the will and the deed returning title to the Ortegas through undue influence. The trial court rendered judgment on the verdict and invalidated both instruments. This appeal followed.

         D. Issues on Appeal

         Celia argues in four issues on appeal: (1) the evidence is legally insufficient to support the jury's verdict regarding the will; (2) the evidence is legally insufficient to support the jury's verdict regarding the second deed; (3) the trial court had no jurisdiction to invalidate the deed because the statute of limitations had run; and (4) the trial court had no jurisdiction to ...


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