Is a Muniment of Title the Right Probate Procedure for You?
In Texas, when someone dies with a valid will, usual procedure dictates that an application to probate said will be filed with the proper court having jurisdiction over probate maters. If the court is satisfied with the will, an order admitting the will to probate will be granted, and an estate will be opened. That process clears the way for the estate's executor to carry out the deceased testator's last wishes. One important alternative to this general procedure is the muniment of title. The estate of someone who dies with a valid will can be probated as a muniment of title if, at the time of death, the testator (1) owns only real property; and (2) has no debt other than debt secured by real property. If these qualifications are met, a muniment of title can be cheaper and quicker than traditional probate procedures, and it expressly avoids the need for an estate administration altogether.
The statutory basis for muniments of title is found in Chapter 257 of the Texas Estates Code. Under that chapter, an applicant must submit an application consisting of his or her personal information, information regarding the deceased's will, and some of the deceased's familiar history. It must also specifically allege that, to the extent known to the applicant, the testator owned real property, and that the testator's estate owes no unpaid debt other than that secured by real property. If the court is satisfied with the validity of the will and the contents of the application, it will grant an order probating the will as a muniment of title.
According to Section 257.102 of the Estates Code, "A person who is entitled to property under the provisions of a will admitted to probate as a muniment of title is entitled to deal with and treat the property in the same manner as if the record of title to the property was vested in the person's name." In other words, once the order is granted probating the will as a muniment of title, the beneficiaries named in the will have clear, marketable title. The applicant has accomplished the transfer with no need for an estate administration, court permission, or the executing and recording of executor's deeds. This can save the applicant and beneficiaries money, time, and potential trips to the courthouse.
While the advantages of muniments of title can be great, it is not always the right probate tool. As the Estates Code makes clear, the most important factor is the existence of a valid will executed by the decedent. If this primary requirement cannot be met, the applicant should speak to his or her attorney about intestate procedures. Remember also that the muniment of title is only applicable when the estate assets consist only of real property. If there are a large number of other assets (checking and savings accounts, stocks and bonds, business interests, etc.), a more traditional estate administration may be necessary. This is also the case if the estate has unsecured debts. Lastly, a muniment of title is probably not advisable if the applicant expects conflicts to arise over the validity of the will or the interests of the beneficiaries.
An interesting situation often arises when the primary assets of the estate are real property interests, but there are still small bank accounts or other residual assets. In these situations, the prudence of utilizing the muniment of title approach depends largely upon the institutions holding the decedent's assets. Generally speaking, Texas banks and financial institutions are familiar with state laws regarding muniments of title. They should have little trouble releasing assets upon the furnishing of an order probating a will as a muniment of title. On the other hand, if the institution is one operating on a national scale, they may be less familiar with Texas law. This may render them less comfortable releasing funds without the presentation of Letters Testamentary by a court-appointed estate executor. Policies concerning muniments of title are best understood before any probate application is filed, as it can often be a costly mistake to probate as a muniment of title, only to find that an estate administration is necessary.
As true with any legal matter, a muniment of title can be great way to save time and money in the probate process when used correctly. The only way to know for sure is to have an experienced probate attorney go over your situation and thoroughly discuss all your options. From there, you and your attorney can craft a unique plan to accomplish your goals by the most efficient means available.