Standing In Texas Guardianship Turns On Discrete Issues In Particular Phase Of Proceeding

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In the Matter Of the Guardianship of Carlos Benavides Jr., a December 2020 opinion from the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals,  the court addressed issues of standing, law of the case, and timely appeals in Texas guardianship proceedings.

The Facts Of the Texas Guardianship Proceeding

A long history of litigation concerning the guardianship of Carlos Benavides exists between Carlos’s adult children and his wife.

Initial Guardianship Proceedings

On September 2, 2011, Carlos’s adult children filed applications for temporary and permanent guardianship over Carlos’s person and estate.

Shortly thereafter, on September 14, 2011, Carolos executed an estate plan designating his wife, Leticia, as guardian of his person and estate.  Leticia then sought to dismiss and contest the applications for guardianship filed by Carlos’s adult children.

The Texas guardianship court denied Leticia’s motion to dismiss and appointed a temporary guardian of Carlos’s person and estate.  Carlos’s children then filed a motion to exclude Leticia from participating in the guardianship proceeding, claiming her interest was adverse to Carlos’s.

The trial court found that Leticia lacked standing to intervene in the Texas guardianship proceeding because of her adverse interests, and granted the guardian’s motion to exclude her from the proceedings (the “2013 Limine Order”). The trial court later signed a final judgment declaring Carlos incapacitated, appointing guardians of his person and estate, and declaring his 2011 estate plan invalid. Linda, Carlos’s daughter from a previous marriage, was appointed as guardian of Carlos’s person and estate.

The Instant Dispute

In July 2019, Linda (Carlos’s guardian) filed a petition for instruction asking the court to make certain declarations regarding distributions from the Benavides Family Mineral Trust. Leticia objected to the petition and moved to remove Linda as guardian, claiming that Linda had a conflict of interest.  Linda responded by filing two motions – one challenging Leticia’s standing in the guardianship, and one alleging that Leticia had adverse interests to Carlos.

The Texas guardianship court found that the 2013 Limine Order remained in full force and effect, and that Leticia’s interest was still adverse to Carlos’s interest.  The Texas guardianship court found that Leticia lacked standing to file her motion to remove Linda as guardian or her objection to Linda’s petition for instruction and dismissed her filings with prejudice in August 2019.

Law Of the Case Doctrine In Texas Guardianship Proceedings

On appeal, Linda first argued that the law of the case doctrine applied to bar Leticia’s action as the result of the Texas appeals court decision affirming the 2013 Limine Order.

“The ‘law of the case’ doctrine provides that a decision of a court of last resort on a question of law will govern a case throughout its subsequent stages.” In 04-19-00801-CV – 4 – re Benavides, 605 S.W.3d at 238 (quoting Cody Tex., L.P. v. BPL Expl., Ltd., No. 04-17-00810- CV, ––– S.W.3d ––––, 2019 WL 6719034, at *5 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Dec. 11, 2019, pet. denied) (en banc)). “The doctrine does not apply when the issues presented in a successive appeal are not substantially the same as those previously decided.” Id.

In the 2013 Limine Order, the Texas guardianship court found that Leticia’s interest was adverse to Carlos’s interests, and prohibited Leticia from contesting the creation of the guardianship or the appointment of his guardian.  Pursuant to Texas Estates Code 1055.001(b), the Texas appeals court in 2014 concluded that since Leticia lacked standing to contest the creation of the Texas guardianship or the appointment of the guardian, she also lacked standing to challenge those orders on appeal.

However, in this action, Leticia presented issues that were not substantially the same as the issues in the 2014 decision.  The Texas appeals court stated:

In this appeal, Leticia does not contest the creation of a guardianship or the appointment of a guardian. Instead, she argues that after the guardianship was created and a guardian was appointed, she properly objected to Linda’s request for trial court authorization to take an action that would benefit Linda to Carlos’s detriment, and properly sought to remove Linda as Carlos’s guardian. Because the issues presented in this appeal are not substantially the same as those in our 2014 decision, we cannot say Leticia lacks standing to challenge the August 28, 2019 orders based on law of the case.

What Is the Deadline To Appeal a Texas Guardianship Decision?

Linda also argued that Leticia’s appeal was untimely because it was actually an appeal of the 2013 Limine Order, not a challenge to the 2019 orders.  The court addressed appeals in guardianship proceedings, stating:

If, as here, a timely post-judgment motion is filed, then the notice of appeal is due within 90 days of a final judgment. TEX. R. APP. P. 26.1(a). In a guardianship proceeding such as this, multiple final judgments that dispose of “certain discrete issues” can occur. See De Ayala v. Mackie, 193 S.W.3d 575, 578 (Tex. 2006); Lehmann v. Har–Con Corp., 39 S.W.3d 191, 195 (Tex. 2001) (providing that multiple orders resolving certain discrete matters in probate case may be final for purposes of appeal). In the absence of a statute declaring an order final, a guardianship order is final if it disposes of all the parties and issues in a particular phase of the proceeding of which the order logically may be considered a part. See De Ayala, 193 S.W.3d at 578–79.

Here, Linda’s petition for instruction began a new phase of the guardianship proceeding.  The August 2019 order disposed of issues in this new phase by finding Leticia lacked standing and dismissing her pleadings.

Standing in Texas Guardianship Proceedings

Section 1055.001 of the Texas Estates Code, entitled “Standing to Commence or Contest Proceeding,” provides in relevant part, “[e]xcept as provided by Subsection (b), any person has the right to . . . appear and contest a guardianship proceeding.”  Subsection (b) explains that a person who has an interest adverse to a proposed ward or incapacitated person may not file an application to create a guardianship, contest the creation of a guardianship, contest the appointment of a guardian, or contest an application for complete restoration or modification of a ward’s guardianship.

New Filings Can Equal The Beginning Of a New Phase In a Guardianship Proceeding

While Linda attempted to argue that Leticia lacked standing forevermore in the guardianship because of the 2013 Limine Order, Leticia argued that a new phase of the guardianship had begun in which she did have standing to object to the proceedings.  The Texas Appeals Court agreed with Leticia, stating:

While section 1022.002(d) of the Texas Estates Code provides that a guardianship “is one proceeding for purposes of jurisdiction,” the Texas Supreme Court has clarified that a guardianship proceeding can produce multiple judgments that dispose of discrete issues and are final for purposes of appeal. See De Ayala, 193 S.W.3d at 578. And as we explained above, the 2013 Limine Order disposed of a discrete issue in a particular phase of the proceeding—whether Leticia had an adverse interest to Carlos’s interest for purposes of creating a guardianship or appointing a guardian.

Contrary to Linda’s assertion, the 2013 Limine Order did not determine Leticia’s standing for every future phase of the guardianship proceeding, but only for the particular phase of the proceeding concerning creation of the guardianship and appointment of the guardian.  When new phases of the guardianship proceeding began—i.e., when Linda filed a petition for instruction and Leticia filed her motion to remove Linda as guardian—the trial court was required to determine Leticia’s standing anew, independent of the 2013 Limine Order.

Leticia did not take any of the actions explicitly prohibited by section 1055.001(b).  Specifically, she did not (1) file an application to create a guardianship; (2) contest the creation of a guardianship; (3) contest the appointment of a person as guardian or (4) contest an application for complete restoration or modification of a ward’s guardianship.  Therefore, Leticia was not barred from appearing in the guardianship proceeding to file her objection to Linda’s petition for instruction or her motion to remove Linda as guardian.

The Texas appeals court denied Linda’s motion to dismiss, reversed the trial court’s August 28, 2019 orders finding Leticia lacked standing in the Texas guardianship action, and remanded the cause to the trial court for further proceedings.

Texas guardianship proceedings can be complicated and nuanced.  We have written about several Texas guardianship cases here, here, and here.  A Texas probate and guardianship lawyer can help you with your guardianship questions.

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