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Estate of Riefler

Court of Appeals of Texas, Seventh District, Amarillo

November 28, 2017


         On Appeal from the County Court at Law Cooke County, Texas[1] Trial Court Nos. PR17203, PR17203-1, PR17203-2, Honorable John H. Morris, Presiding

          Before QUINN, C.J., and PIRTLE and PARKER, JJ.


          Judy C. Parker Justice

         Ronald Ayers, in his capacity as the Guardian of Mary Theresa Ayers, appeals from the trial court's order approving a settlement agreement arising during mediation and from the court's final judgment giving effect to that settlement. We will affirm.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Gus W. Riefler, Jr., died on November 10, 2014, leaving a will which bequeathed his entire estate to Pauline Riefler, his wife of fifty-plus years. Pauline had predeceased him in January of 2014. The will named no contingent beneficiary, resulting in intestacy.

          Riefler had no biological children. He was survived by a sister, Mary Theresa Ayers, and by Pauline's daughter, Claudia Jonas ("Claudia"), who had been raised in Riefler's household since the age of five. He was also survived by two nieces and a nephew, the children of his sister Nellie Nelson, who had predeceased him.

         Claudia filed an application for letters of independent administration and an application for determination of heirship (Cause No. PR17203), and a petition alleging that she was the child and sole heir of Gus W. Riefler, Jr., pursuant to the doctrine of adoption by estoppel (Cause No. PR17203-1) in the County Court at Law of Cooke County, Texas. Claudia sought to have her son, Danny Joe Jonas, Jr., appointed as independent administrator.

         Ronald Ayers, husband of Mary Theresa Ayers and acting in his capacity as her guardian, answered, specially excepting to Claudia's pleadings and denying her status as Riefler's heir. Ayers then filed his own application to declare heirship, seeking to have himself appointed as independent administrator (Cause No. PR17203-2). Ayers attached to his pleadings an "Order Proving Authority to Act in Pending Litigation" from the Dallas County Probate Court, in which the guardianship proceeding involving Mary Theresa Ayers was pending. The order provided that Ayers was "approved to act on behalf of Mary Theresa Ayers in all those legal proceedings currently pending in Cooke County involving the estate of Gus W. Riefler, Jr." The order also stated, "The Court further ORDERS that any settlement of the above matter be submitted to this Court for review before disposition of the Cooke County litigation."

         Claudia died on January 8, 2016. A suggestion of death was filed identifying her four children as her heirs and requesting that they be substituted in her place in the pending actions. In response, Ayers filed motions to dismiss. Various other pleadings were filed, but they are not relevant to this appeal.

         On April 7, 2016, and before the trial court had ruled on any matters, the parties attended mediation. Those parties were Danny Joe Jonas, Jr., Jonathan Paul Jonas, William Clifford Jonas, and Jeremy Matthew Jonas (the four children of Claudia Jonas); Paula Jackson, Anita Hawley, and James Timothy Nelson[2] (Riefler's nieces and nephew through his sister Nellie); and Ronald Ayers, Guardian of Mary Theresa Ayers. Ronald Brian Ayers, son of Mary Theresa and Ronald Ayers, also attended mediation. All parties except for Jackson and Hawley, both of whom supported the Jonas family's claims, were represented by counsel at mediation.

         The mediation lasted for approximately ten hours and was facilitated by former statutory probate judge Nikki DeShazo. At the conclusion of the mediation, a settlement was reached which was executed by all the parties. The parties signed both a "Rule 11 & Settlement Agreement" and a "Compromise Family Settlement Agreement and Mutual Release Arising During Mediation." Both agreements referenced all three pending causes.

         Among other things, the parties agreed to consent to a judgment declaring Claudia Jonas as the child and sole heir-at-law of Riefler, to the appointment of Danny Joe Jonas, Jr., as Independent Administrator of Riefler's estate, and to the distribution of estate property. With regards to distribution, the agreement provided that Ayers, as Guardian of Mary Theresa Ayers, and James Timothy Nelson would receive $440, 000.00, and that the Jonas brothers would receive the rest and remainder of Riefler's estate (approximately $920, 000.00).

         On May 20, 2016, Danny Joe Jonas, Jr., filed the two agreements in all three cause numbers, along with an application requesting that the trial court approve them. Ayers filed an objection to the application, raising three grounds: first, he contended that he was under the influence of prescription medication when he signed the agreements; second, he alleged that approval of the settlement agreement by the Dallas County Probate Court was necessary before the County Court at Law of Cooke County could approve it, and that "he will not request" such approval; and third, he claimed that he was misled as to the value of estate assets.

         Ayers filed amended objections on June 9, 2016. He again alleged that approval from the Dallas County Probate Court was required, stating, "this Court should take no action until the mediation agreement is reviewed and approved by Dallas Probate Court." He also claimed that none of the Jonas brothers "have legally qualified as heirs of Claudia Jonas" and therefore they had no authority to proceed in the case. Ayers reiterated his objections based on alleged fraud and medical impairment.

         On June 16, 2016, the Jonas brothers, individually and as heirs of Claudia Jonas, filed an amended petition in Cause No. PR17203-1. The brothers requested a finding that Claudia was Riefler's child under the doctrine of adoption by estoppel and entitled to a share of his estate, or, in the alternative, that Ayers breached the settlement agreement of April 7, entitling them to specific performance or damages.

         The trial court held a hearing on the application to approve the settlement and the objections to the application on June 21, 2016. All parties were present. On June 24, the court signed an order approving the agreement. Danny Joe Jonas, Jr., filed a motion for entry of judgment. The trial court heard that motion on July 8, at the hearing to appoint Danny Joe Jonas, Jr., as Independent Administrator. Ayers was not present at the July 8 hearing. The trial court entered a final judgment in Cause No. PR17203-1 on July 8, 2016, and Danny Joe Jonas, Jr., was appointed and qualified as Independent Administrator.

         That same day, Ayers filed a response objecting to the entry of judgment. He argued that the agreement required the approval of the Dallas County Probate Court before the trial court could approve the settlement. He maintained, "This has not been accomplished as agreed by the parties and therefore the Order of June 24, 2016 is premature." Ayers again urged that he was misled and that he was under the influence of medication which impaired him at the mediation. Ayers also filed an objection and motion to vacate judgment on the grounds that he did not receive notice of the July 8 hearing.

         Danny Joe Jonas, Jr., filed objections to Ayers's motion to vacate the final judgment and a reply to Ayers's response to the motion for entry of judgment. He also filed a motion to dismiss Ayers's application to declare heirship and for appointment of independent administrator in Cause No. PR17203-2.

          The trial court set Ayers's objection and motion to vacate final judgment for hearing, which was held on July 25. Following the hearing, on August 2, the court denied Ayers's request to vacate the judgment and entered a final judgment in all three causes. In its final judgment, the court accepted and gave full effect to the agreements signed by the parties at mediation.

         Ayers filed this appeal. He appeals the trial court's June 24 order approving the Rule 11 & Settlement Agreement, the July 8 final judgment in Cause No. PR17203-1, and ...

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