Which court, probate court or district court, has jurisdiction?
Mrs. Maria Cantu was the trustee of a family trust originally created for her late husband and her. The Ward became the primary beneficiary upon her husband’s death. Upon the Mrs. Cantu’s incapacity, the trust provided that her son, Carmen, and her daughter, Cimo, would become co-‐trustees.
This occurred when in 2010, when Mrs. Cantu was 100 years old, a guardianship was created for her as an incapacitated person by a statutory probate court in Harris County, Texas with the assistance of Cimo. An incapacitated person is called a Ward and the person appointed to make legal decisions for the Ward is called his/her legal Guardian.
In 2011, Cimo intervened in the guardianship pending the appointment of Maria’s grandson, Carlos, as Guardian by the statutory probate court. By intervening, Cimo sued Carmen and his wife, Delfina, claiming that they committed fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, mismanagement of the trust and similar claims.
Most importantly, Cimo claimed that Carmen and Delfina wrongfully transferred property from the trust to “a series of purported business entities,” including CC & M.
Of additional importance, in 2012 Carmen died leaving Cimo as sole trustee of the family trust and Carmen’s will named Delfina as executrix. Delfina sued Maria’s grandson, Carlos, seeking a declaratory judgment from the Hidalgo County, Texas district court that Maria had contributed the bulk of the trust’s South Texas ranch property to CC & M pursuant to the terms of a partnership agreement and she wanted an order compelling Maria or her Guardian to sign the corresponding required deeds.
Delfina claimed that the Texas Property Code makes venue, that is – the location where the lawsuit will be decided, mandatory in the county where the South Texas ranch is located – Hidalgo County, Texas.
Carlos, as Guardian for Maria, filed a motion to transfer venue of the lawsuit from Hidalgo County, Texas to the statutory probate court that issued the guardianship in Harris County, Texas.
Does a Harris County, Texas statutory probate court that issued a guardianship order have exclusive jurisdiction, and therefore venue, over a case involving a Ward that was originally filed in a Hidalgo County, Texas district court that has mandatory statutory venue to whether relief may issue in a case that involves an interest in real property?
Yes, the Hidalgo County, Texas district court correctly transferred venue to the Harris County, Texas statutory probate court. See In re CC & M Garza Ranches, Ltd. Partnership, 409 S.W.3d 106, 109 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2013, no pet.).
Venue presupposes that more than one court can exercise jurisdiction -‐ the power or authority of a court to decide a case.
Most importantly, the Texas Probate Code section 607D, now the Texas Estates Code section 1022.005, confers “exclusive jurisdiction of all guardianship proceedings” on a statutory probate court. Thus the statute recites that, “[a] cause of action related to a guardianship proceeding of which the statutory probate court has exclusive jurisdiction… must be brought in the statutory probate court….”.
“[W]hen one court has…exclusive jurisdiction over matter, any order or judgment issued by another court pertaining to the same matter is void.”
In interpreting then Probate Code section 606A(b) now Estates Code section 1021.1, the Court of Appeals held that claims “related to” a guardianship proceeding include:
- a suit, action, or application filed against her own behalf of a guardianship;
- a cause of action in which a guardian in a guardianship pending in the statutory probate court’s party;
- a claim brought by or against a guardianship estate;
- an action for trial of title to real property that is guardianship estate property, including the enforcement of a lien against the property; and
- an action for trial of the right of property that is guardianship estate property.
‘Moral of the Story’
By giving the statutory probate court exclusive jurisdiction over all claims related to a guardianship proceeding, the Legislature necessarily deprived all other courts of the power to adjudicate those claims.
The statutory probate court may exercise its discretion to pull virtually any matter related to a guardianship into its jurisdiction and deprive another court of issuing any order or judgment. Any order or judgment that is issued by the other court without the approval of the statutory probate court is void.