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Wyatt v. Deal

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

June 6, 2019

Priscilla Wyatt, Appellant
v.
Anissa Delaine Deal, as Independent Executor of the Estate of Sydney B. Wyatt, Appellee

          On Appeal from the County Court Hood County, Texas Trial Court No. P-08376

          Before Pittman, Bassel, and Womack, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Mark T. Pittman, Justice.

         In two issues, Appellant Priscilla Wyatt (Priscilla) challenges the trial court's no-answer default judgment against her in favor of Appellee Anissa Delaine Deal, as Independent Executor of the Estate of Sydney B. Wyatt (Anissa). In her first issue, Priscilla asserts that the trial court erred in granting the default judgment due to lack of a proper service return. In her second issue, Priscilla asserts that the default judgment should be reversed due to lack of evidence supporting the damages and attorney's fee award. For the reasons set forth below, we need only address the first issue and reverse the judgment below and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

         Background

         I. Anissa Files a Probate Application for Her Father's Will and Sues Priscilla in the Same Proceeding.

         Sydney B. Wyatt died in September 2017. On November 2, 2017, his daughter, Anissa, applied in the County Court of Hood County, Texas to probate a will for Mr. Wyatt dated April 2012. The county court admitted the will to probate under Cause Number P-08376.

         In January 2018, Anissa, now independent executor of her father's estate, moved to transfer the proceeding to a statutory probate court judge because she was "preparing to file suit against the Decedent's spouse for breach of fiduciary duty" and other claims. The case was assigned to Judge Oswin Chrisman.

         On February 12, 2018, Anissa filed an original petition against Priscilla, Mr. Wyatt's wife at the time of his death, asserting claims of breach of fiduciary duty, money had and received, and declaratory judgment. Anissa's petition was also filed in Cause Number P-08376.

         On February 15, 2018, Anissa filed a service return for her original petition. The return indicated that service had been made on Priscilla that morning. An individual named Gary Cooper signed the return in the section titled "Sheriff's Return." Above the signature line appeared the text "Constable, County Sheriff[, ] or Authorized [P]erson," with the words "Constable" and "County Sheriff" crossed out. The identifier "Deputy" was typed underneath the signature line but had also been crossed out.

         On February 26, 2018, Anissa filed a second service return, also by an individual named Gary Cooper. The section labeled "Officer's Return" had the words "Sheriff, Constable[, ] or Authorized Person" with the words "Sheriff" and "Constable" crossed out.[1]

         II. Priscilla Files Her Own Probate Application in a New Proceeding.

         In March 2018, Priscilla applied to probate a will for Mr. Wyatt dated March 2013.[2] She filed the application in the County Court of Hood County, Texas, and the proceeding was assigned Cause Number P-08448. It was also assigned to Judge Chrisman. In response, Anissa filed a contest to this will. Importantly, Cause Number P-08376 and Cause Number P-08448 were never consolidated, and Priscilla never filed an answer in Cause Number P-08376.

         III. The Trial Court Denies Priscilla's Probate Application and Grants Default Judgment on Anissa's Claims Against Priscilla.

         On May 8, 2018, Judge Chrisman held a hearing in Cause Number P-08448 at which he considered Priscilla's probate application. After the testimony of Priscilla, Anissa, and a handwriting expert testifying for Anissa, Judge Chrisman orally ruled that Priscilla failed to prove up the validity of Mr. Wyatt's March 2013 will and that he was dismissing her application. The judge then stated, "We are dismissed. Now, do we need to hear anything else?" Priscilla's attorney stated,

Just one last thing. There is still the probate matter in P-08376. We filed a probate. Subsequently, there was a petition filed in that under that cause number. We would ask the Court for leave to file a response in that case. These are separate issues.

         Anissa's attorney replied,

[Priscilla is] here today and no answer has been filed in the ancillary case. I'd like to make a default-request a default judgment in cause number P-08376 regarding the breach of fiduciary duty and the declaratory judgment avoiding the deeds that were filed in multiple counties and requesting monetary relief.

         Judge Chrisman noted that there was an ongoing administration of Mr. Wyatt's estate (under Mr. Wyatt's April 2012 will submitted by Anissa in Cause Number P-08376) and that while Priscilla could later apply to submit a different will to probate if she wanted, "[t]he Court is not inclined to grant a leave of ...


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