Heir Rights (TX)
As an heir, you likely have questions about the inheritance process, and your rights.
Overall, if you are entitled to receive an inheritance, you have the right to expect to receive that inheritance ... eventually. While some states attempt to put deadlines on estate settlements, an average estate takes 16 months to settle, and some take years (see Inheritance Timing).
Rights Under Probate
Most estates are settled by an executor appointed by the court (often a family member), under a court-supervised process known as probate. The executor has significant discretionary power, but he or she has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the estate, to follow the law, and to distribute estate proceeds to the rightful heirs.
However, estates must satisfy obligations according to priority (for example, debts take precedence over distributions), so in some cases your inheritance will be less than expected, or even be completely consumed by other estate priorities (which must generally affect all potential heirs proportionately). See Estate Expenses, Fees, and Taxes for more information, and note that for your protection, estate executors must document all estate transactions and make these records available to the courts ... and in some states, must proactively deliver these records in a Final Accounting to the heirs as well.
Your rights as an heir include:
- Notice: Many states have laws that require an estate executor to notify you of the death and the estate proceeding if you are mentioned in the will, if there is no will and you are entitled to inherit by intestate succession, or even if there is a will that doesn't mention you, but you would have been entitled to inherit by intestate succession (i.e., you are an "heir-at-law").
- Estate Information: Many states require the executor to provide you a copy of the estate inventory, as well as a Final Accounting (what happened to the inventory, what estate expenses were incurred, etc.). If the estate is undergoing probate, and the state does not require that the executor directly supply you the information, you can simply make a public records request for the reports filed with the court.
- Family Entitlements: If you are a surviving spouse or dependent child, you likely have additional rights that go beyond anything mentioned in the will or mandated by the laws of intestate succession. Surviving family members often have the right to remain living in the family home for a certain period of time, to automatically receive certain personal possessions, to receive a living allowance from the estate while it is being settled, and to receive certain minimum amounts (see Family Entitlement details for your state).
- Reasonable Timeframe: Unless the asset is one that automatically transfers on death (such as an IRA with a named beneficiary), you can expect the process to take 12-18 months on average, and sometimes considerably longer (see Inheritance Timing). An executor has a duty to settle an estate in a reasonable timeframe, but most states are very lenient about such timeframes, and there are legitimate reasons that some estates take years to settle. On the other hand, some executor simply cannot handle the task, or unreasonably delay, and those can be grounds to ask the court to remove the executor and appoint someone else.
- Court Objections: If the estate undergoes probate (and most do), you have the right to object to the probate court about anything you think is being done incorrectly or improperly. You can object to the appointment of a particular executor, you can object to the validity of a will, you can object to particular distributions (not just your own), you can object to sales of assets, you can object to how long things are taking ... in fact, you can object to almost anything. You just need to make sure you have valid grounds for doing so, and it's important to realize that settling an estate is a difficult task that takes time. See Court to find your particular court.
- Lawsuits: If the probate judge does not respond to your objection as desired, or if there is no probate proceeding, then you can file a civil lawsuit against the estate. Such lawsuits can be expensive, and should be considered only as a last resort.
- Expectations: Please keep in mind that although a will may be specific about an intended inheritance, other factors can sometimes intervene to modify or even entirely invalidate the inheritance. See Rules of Inheritance for details.
- Inheritance Taxes: Some states have inheritance taxes for which the executor has the responsibility of paying, out of your share, before giving you your remaining inheritance. If your executor is using EstateExec, it will tell him or her if such taxes apply.
- Executor Discretion: Unless the inheritance is a specific bequest, the executor may have some discretion in deciding how to give you your share of an estate. The executor may decide to liquidate assets and give you all cash (and cash equivalents), or the executor may mix and match assets to equal your share. You have to the right to ask for your share to be given in a certain form, but the executor does not have to respect your wishes. For this reason (and others), it is advisable to try to retain a good relationship with the executor (see Working with Executors).
- Inheritance Receipts: When you receive an inheritance, the executor will likely ask you to sign a receipt, which can be required. However, the executor will often ask you, as a condition of receiving the proceeds, to waive any rights you may to decide to sue the estate or the executor in the future. Such waivers are best practice for an executor, but heirs are not required to waive their rights, so the decision is up to you. It may be best to sign anyway, to preserve the relationship and to receive your inheritance in a timely manner, but your ultimate recourse is to either convince the executor to drop the waiver, or object to the court.
Small Estate Rights
Most states have laws enabling small estates to be settled without full probate, sometimes without any court involvement at all. In such cases, there may be no formally appointed executor, and the heir can directly collect any inheritance to which he or she is entitled, by providing appropriate documentation to the current asset holders.
In Texas, there are several ways to avoid full probate: small estate affidavit, muniment of title, independent administration, or affidavit of heirship.
Small Estate Affidavit
If a Texas estate's qualified gross value is <$75,000 and there is no will, you can use the small estate process to settle an estate with almost no court involvement.
To use the small estate process, the following conditions must be met:
- The estate qualifies as "small" and there is no will
- At least 30 days have passed since the death
- The estate is solvent (i.e., the non-exempt assets are worth more than the debts)
- No petition has already been made to the court to officially appoint a personal representative
In determining whether an estate qualifies as "small", you should value assets as of the date of death, and ignore any unsecured debts. Do not include any assets that would not normally go through probate, such as community property with rights of survivorship, assets with named beneficiaries (e.g., 401Ks, life insurance policies), and other Standard Probate Exclusions. You should also exclude the value of any Personal Property and Homestead Exemptions.
To use the small estate affidavit process:
- Submit a Small Estate Affidavit to the court (see below)
- Use a copy of the court-certified affidavit to take possession of estate assets
- Note that real estate cannot be transferred via small estate affidavit
- Settle the estate in the normal way (pay debts, distribute remaining assets)
There is no particular affidavit form mandated by law, but some courthouses require the use of their particular version, so best to identify the court as per below, then use whatever form they prefer.
Regardless of the particular form, a small estate affidavit must:
- Show that the required conditions listed above are true (small, no other petition, etc.)
- List all estate assets and debts, identifying assets deemed exempt
- Include the name and address of every heir (specifically, people who will inherit from the estate)
- Include the relevant family history concerning heirship
- Be signed by 2 disinterested witnesses, and by each distributee under Texas intestate succession law, or the guardians or next of kin for any such distributee who is a minor or legally incapacitated
You will need to get the affidavit notarized before submission.
Muniment of Title
A Muniment of Title is similar to a Small Estate Affidavit, but has no limit on estate value, and can be used to transfer both personal and real property.
You can use a Muniment of Title if:
- A valid will exists
- Less than 4 years have passed since the death
- The estate does not owe any debts (other than those secured by a lien on real estate)
To settle an estate via a Muniment of Title:
- Submit to the court an Application for Muniment of Title (see below)
- Schedule a probate hearing to occur after the court-specified waiting period (usually 10 days)
- After the hearing, the court will give you an order admitting the will to probate as a Muniment of Title, which you can use to obtain possession of estate assets
- Note that a Muniment to Title is unique to Texas, and other states will not recognize it, so you cannot use this process to handle out-of-state assets
- Distribute the assets in the normal way
- Within 180 days, file with the court a sworn affidavit stating the terms of the will that have been fulfilled and the terms that have not been fulfilled (the court may also require you to file an estate inventory)
Muniment of Title Application
Check with your local court (see below) to determine if they have a preferred application form, or you can create one yourself based on this example Tarrant County Muniment of Title Form.
The application must state:
- The decedent's name, legal address, and last three driver's license and social security numbers (if assigned)
- Each applicant's name, legal address, and last three driver's license and social security numbers (if assigned)
- The facts of death, including date and place
- The facts that show the given court has jurisdiction (i.e., the decedent lived there)
- An inventory of estate assets and probable value
- The date of the will
- The name, state of residence, and physical address of any executor named in the will
- The name of each witness to the will
- Whether any children were born or adopted by the decedent after the creation of the will, and if so, their names
- That the estate does not owe any unpaid debts, other those secured by a lien on real estate, and that there is no need for administration of the estate
- Whether a decedent's marriage was dissolved after the will was made, and if so, when and from whom
- Whether the state, a governmental agency of the state, or a charitable organization is named in the will
Attach a certified death certificate and the original will to the application.
If the estate cannot qualify for a Muniment of Title, you can still save significant time and money by applying for an Independent Probate Administration.
You can settle an estate via Independent Administration if the will specifies that an independent administrator should be used, or if all distributees agree to such an approach.
To settle an estate via a Independent Administration:
- Submit to the court an Application for Probate via Independent Administration
- Qualify as administrator by obtaining any bond required and get your "Letters of Administration" from the court
- Within 30 days of qualifying, provide notice to creditors
- Within 60 days of the probate order, notify by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested, all inheritors named in the will
- Within 90 days of the probate order, submit a sworn statement to the court of the status of all such notifications (made, waived, not done), as well as an estate inventory
- Submit an estate inventory to the court, including assets and debts
- Upon court approval of the inventory, you may settle the estate in the normal manner (pay debts, distribute assets) without further court interactions
- Optionally file a Closing Report (see TX Estates Code § 405.005)
Affidavit of Heirship
Alternately, you can use an Affidavit of Heirship to lay claim to real property (see TX Estates Code § 203). This is typically used in the case where there is no will, and is not as strong a procedure as a muniment of title or an independent administration. The affidavit must be completed by a person who knew the decedent well, but who does not stand to inherit anything. Once the affidavit has been signed, notarized, and recorded in the deed records of the County, it links the real estate title to his heirs. At that point, most title companies and real estate companies will allow the heirs to sell the property.
Estate Settlement Considerations
Before paying any debts or making any distributions, be sure to account for any TX Family Entitlements, which typically have priority over everything except expenses of the last illness, funeral charges, and any estate administrations expenses.
Estate debts have priority over most distributions in turn, so you should arrange to have all debts resolved before distributing assets. Unpaid estate creditors have the right to sue heirs for the value of any distributions received using the approaches described on this page.
If estate solvency is uncertain, an executor should consider going through official probate for the increased creditor protection it offers. Alternately, such uncertainty can sometimes persuade creditors to forgive a portion of debts, since they will want to avoid legal expenses as well, and may prefer to get something rather than nothing.
See also Making Distributions.
If you are using the small estate process and the decedent died intestate (i.e., without a will), then TX Estates Code § 201 will determine who gets what share of the estate.
In Texas, a few counties have dedicated Probate Courts, and the rest handle probate via Constitutional County Courts, with the relevant District Court having jurisdiction for contested matters. You can see this court structure on the Texas Courts website, and you can find the appropriate TX court for a given estate by using the Texas Courts search to select your desired court type and county location (or you can download the Texas court list and search for the relevant court within the estate's county).
Finally, note that as an heir, you are NOT responsible for paying the debts of the estate out of your own funds. You do NOT inherit responsibility for paying the debts of parents, for example. If the estate is insolvent (i.e., cannot pay all its bills), then creditors simply end up with less than owed, or even nothing ... as do you.
If an estate ends up being insolvent, and you somehow received a distribution anyway (perhaps through a small estate process), some states allow creditors to sue you to reclaim any amounts they are still owed. So you can't inherit a debt outright, but if you receive a distribution that the estate needed to pay its bills, you may be forced to pay out some or all of that distribution.
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