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Estate of Puckett

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

August 1, 2019

Estate of James Andrew Puckett, Deceased

          On Appeal from the County Court at Law Cooke County, Texas Trial Court No. PR17461

          Before Sudderth, C.J.; Gabriel and Womack, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Lee Gabriel Justice

         Appellant Reneé[1] Puckett Frazier appeals from the statutory county court's denial of her motion to dismiss appellee Rufus Aaron Puckett's motion to set aside a deed to real property. Frazier argues that because Aaron's motion to set aside was a suit for the recovery of land, the statutory county court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction. We conclude that because Aaron's motion related to a pending probate proceeding, the statutory county court had the jurisdiction to determine the issue.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Will and Deed

         The operative facts are largely undisputed. James Andrew Puckett Sr. executed a will on October 24, 2016, naming his grandson Aaron as his independent executor. James Sr. devised his real and personal property to his son James Andrew Puckett Jr. and to two of his grandsons, Aaron and James Puckett III, in "equal shares and in fee simple absolute."[2] But James Sr. specifically made "no provisions" for his other two sons or for Frazier, his daughter.

         On April 26, 2017, James Sr. signed a general warranty deed conveying a one-acre parcel in Cooke County to Frazier for $10 but granting himself a life estate in the property. See generally Tex. Est. Code Ann. § 114.051 (authorizing transfer-on-death deeds); Tex. Prop. Code Ann. § 5.041 (allowing conveyance of an "estate of freehold or inheritance" to commence in the future).

         B. Probate Proceedings

         James Sr. died on May 18, 2017. Aaron applied to probate the will and for letters testamentary four days later in the County Court at Law of Cooke County, which is a statutory county court and has original probate jurisdiction as provided by law.[3] See Tex. Est. Code Ann. § 32.002(b); Tex. Gov't Code Ann. §§ 25.0003(d), 25.0511; see also Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 26.149(a) (providing Cooke County's constitutional county court has no probate jurisdiction). The statutory county court admitted the October 24, 2016 will to probate, appointed Aaron independent executor of James Sr.'s will, and issued letters testamentary to Aaron.

         Frazier filed an application to set aside the order admitting the will to probate based on her assertion that James Jr. and James III exerted undue influence over James Sr. when he executed the October 2016 will and also when he executed a prior will in 2015. Frazier requested that these wills be declared invalid and that James Sr.'s March 19, 2013 will, which divided his estate equally among his four children, be admitted to probate.

         Aaron, as the estate's independent executor, filed a motion to set aside the April 26, 2017 general warranty deed as void because James Sr. lacked the capacity to sign the deed because he "was in poor health and in the hospital under significant medication" at the time and because Frazier exerted undue influence on James Sr. See generally Tex. Est. Code Ann. § 114.054(a) (requiring transferor of transfer-on-death deed to have capacity to contract). Aaron also raised the issue in a counterclaim to Frazier's application to set aside the probate-admission order.

         Aaron then filed an inventory and appraisement that listed the real property that was the subject of the general warranty deed as an estate asset and valued the parcel at $80,890. See id. § 309.051. The statutory county court approved the inventory. See id. §§ 309.051(d), 309.054. Frazier later asked for the appointment of an appraiser to value the parcel. See id. § 309.001(a).

         Approximately thirteen months after Aaron filed his motion to set aside the general warranty deed, Frazier filed a motion to dismiss Aaron's motion for want of jurisdiction, arguing that the statutory county court did not have jurisdiction over a suit for the recovery of land that was not part of James Sr.'s estate at the time of his death. See Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 25.0003(a), (d); cf. id. § 26.043(8) (providing constitutional county court has no jurisdiction over suit for the recovery of land). Aaron responded that the statutory county court, sitting as a probate court, had jurisdiction to consider any matter related to the probate proceeding, including "a claim brought by a personal representative on behalf of an estate," "an action for trial of title to real property that is estate property," and "an action for trial of the right of property that is estate property." Tex. Est. Code Ann. § 31.002(a)(3), (5), (6); see alsoid. ยง 32.001(a) (allowing court exercising original probate jurisdiction to hear "all matters ...


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