Frost Nat'l Bank v. Fernandez

Decision Date16 April 2010
Docket NumberNo. 08-0534.,08-0534.
Citation315 S.W.3d 494
PartiesFROST NATIONAL BANK, Former Executor of the Estate of Elena Suess Kenedy, Deceased, and Frost National Bank and Pablo Suess, Trustees of the John G. Kenedy, Jr. Charitable Trust, Petitioners, v. Ann M. FERNANDEZ, Respondent.
CourtTexas Supreme Court


J.A. (Tony) Canales, Tara Leigh Adami, Canales & Simonson, P.C., Corpus Christi, Stephen Jody Helman, Jeffrey T. Knebel, Osborne & Helman, L.L.P., Austin, Jacqueline M. Stroh, Thomas H. Crofts Jr., Crofts & Callaway, P.C., San Antonio, TX, for Petitioners.

Eric G. Walraven, Underwood, Perkins & Ralston, B.C., Marcos G. Ronquillo, Shawn Malcolm McCaskill, Christie Marie Villareal, Godwin Pappas Langley Ronquillo LLP, Julia F. Pendery, Dallas, Michele Anne Mobley, Dubois, Bryant, & Campbell, LLP, Austin, TX, for Respondent.

John Sjoberg, Jackson, Sjoberg, McCarthy & Wilson, LLP, Shannon H. Ratliff, Maria Diane Broaddus, Ratliff Law Firm, P.L.L.C., Austin, TX, for Humble Oil & Refining Company.

Justice GREEN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Believing herself to be the non-marital child of John G. Kenedy, Jr., Ann M. Fernandez has initiated multiple proceedings in both district court and statutory probate court to set aside decades-old judgments and reopen the estates of Kenedy, his wife, and his sister, and to declare Fernandez an heir to those estates. The defendants filed motions for summary judgment in the district court arguing numerous grounds, including that because Fernandez's heirship claim was barred by limitations, she could not establish an interest in the estates and could not pursue bills of review. The district court granted summary judgment against Fernandez in a broadly-worded order that did not specify the grounds. The principal issue on appeal is whether the district court had jurisdiction to render summary judgment when similar bill of review proceedings and applications for determination of heirship were pending in the probate court. The court of appeals held that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and was required to abate its proceedings until the probate court first resolved questions of heirship. We disagree. Fernandez's pleadings and her direct attack on a previous judgment vested the district court with subject matter jurisdiction. Moreover, the Texas Probate Code does not authorize a probate court to exercise jurisdiction over heirship claims when an estate has been closed for decades and the decedent did not die intestate. We therefore reverse those parts of the court of appeals' judgment that relate to jurisdiction and abatement. Further, we hold that the discovery rule does not apply to inheritance or heirship claims by non-marital children, or bill of review claims to set aside probate judgments. Because Fernandez's claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations, we render judgment reinstating the district court's judgment. In light of today's ruling, we conclude that none of Fernandez's claims for heirship or inheritance rights to the Kenedy estate remain viable, so we affirm the portion of the court of appeals' judgment that set aside the district court's anti-suit injunction.

I. Facts and Procedural Background

John G. Kenedy, Jr., died in 1948. In his holographic will, Kenedy left all his "property of every character and description both personal and mixed" to his wife, Elena Suess Kenedy. After Kenedy's will was probated in the County Court of Kenedy County, Humble Oil & Refining Company, which leased mineral interests that were part of Kenedy's estate, brought a will construction suit in district court to resolve a potential ambiguity regarding whether Kenedy's will disposed of all Kenedy's real property (the Humble Oil suit). On October 12, 1949, 1 the district court found that all of Kenedy's heirs were before it and held that the will did not leave an intestacy but instead passed his interest in any property to his wife. The judgment states that "as a matter of law" Kenedy was survived by no children and that "all persons who would have inherited any part of the Estate of John G. Kenedy, Jr., deceased, if he had died intestate as to all or any part of his estate, are parties to this suit and therefore all necessary and interested parties are included among the defendants herein." Kenedy's estate was distributed, taxed, and closed in 1952.2

Sarita Kenedy East, Kenedy's sister, died in 1961. East's 19(50 will and codicils, which left the bulk of East's estate to The John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation and contained a residual clause leaving any remaining property to the Foundatiotr, were admitted to probate later in 1961. After extensive litigation (the Trevino will contest), the district court dismissed several contests to the I960 will and codicils. See Trevino v. Tur-cotte, 564 S.W.2d 682, 690 (Tex.1978). As a part of that litigation, the district court entered a final judgment in 1975 pursuant to a settlement agreement as to some of the parties contesting East's 1960 will. We later affirmed the district court's dismissal judgment, id., and the district court then transferred the Trevino will contest back to the County Court of Kenedy County for a final accounting of East's estate in 1986. The county court closed East's estate in 1987.

Apart from the contests to East's will, a temporary administrator of her estate had also filed an action to set aside certain inter vivos mineral royalty assignments East had made to the Foundation (the Garcia suit). The district court abated this action in 1964, after the Foundation argued that it would own the property at issue under East's will regardless of the status of the inter vivos transfers, if the Trevino will contest failed. After our opinion in Trevino, in September 1978 the district court dismissed the Garcia, suit with prejudice.

Mrs. Kenedy passed away in 1984, leaving a will that bequeathed most of her estate to The John G. Kenedy, Jr. Charitable Trust.3 That will was probated in 1984, the estate was closed in late 1987, and Mrs. Kenedy's interest in the real property at issue was distributed to the Trust. The La Parra Ranch, which was among Kenedy's real property assets that passed to Mrs. Kenedy, was the primary trust asset.4

Fernandez was born in 1925 to Maria Rowland, who was then unmarried and worked for the Kenedy family.5 For years, Fernandez heard rumors and speculation that Kenedy was her father. Fernandez alleges that on Mother's Day of 2000, shortly before her death, Rowland revealed Kenedy's paternity when she told Fernandez's son, Dr. Ray Fernandez, that he bore a resemblance to his grandfather, Kenedy. Fernandez then began engaging in litigation to assert her putative right to inherit from the estates of Kenedy, his wife, and East.6

Fernandez filed multiple lawsuits contesting court orders and probate proceedings relating to those estates, and she seeks to reopen the estates and set aside distributions of real and personal property that were made decades ago in those probate proceedings. Fernandez, who did not receive notice of the suits pertaining the estates of Kenedy, his wife, and East, contends that she should have been a party to those suits, that the judgments in those cases are not binding and should be set aside, and that she is entitled to her intestate share. We discuss the relevant underlying proceedings and filings generally in chronological order.

In October 2001, Fernandez filed her initial suit, a bill of review in the County Court of Kenedy County seeking to set aside the order probating Kenedy's will, to reopen Kenedy's estate, and to be declared Kenedy's heir.7 In May 2002, she filed another bill of review and application for declaration of heirship in Kenedy's estate in the County Court of Kenedy County. She filed additional bill of review proceedings in the County Court of Kenedy County relating to Mrs. Kenedy's estate and East's estate, also seeking a declaration of heirship for these estates.

Fernandez filed three petitions for bill of review in the district court for Kenedy County and Nueces County, seeking to set aside the Humble Oil, Trevino, and Garcia judgments. The district court judgments in those bill of review cases are the subject of appeals currently before us. In May 2002, Fernandez filed the first of these bills of review in the 105th District Court of Nueces County relating to the Trevino will contest (Trevino bill of review).8 This suit also sought an accounting and distribution of property including the mineral interests in the land once held by the Kenedys and East.

On June 28, 2002, Judge Guy Herman was appointed to be the statutory probate judge over the above-referenced County Court of Kenedy County matters.9 On November 5, 2002, citing section 5B of the Texas Probate Code, Judge Herman trans ferred to himself and consolidated all of the four cases then pending in county court.10 In the same orders, Judge Herman also purported to transfer to himself the cases then pending in district court, including the Trevino bill of review.11

Then, in May 2003, Fernandez filed in district court the other two bills of review that are now the subject of pending appeals. Fernandez initiated the underlying proceedings in the 105th District Court of Kenedy County with a bill of review to set aside the 1949 judgment from the Humble Oil will contest suit, arguing that she should have been notified of and made a party to the decades-earlier Humble Oil proceeding (Humble Oil. bill of review).12She also filed a bill of review in the 105th District Court of Nueces County, seeking to set aside the 1978 East dismissal order, claiming that, as East's heir, she should have been notified of and made a party to the Garcia royalty suit (Garcia, bill of review).13

In August 2003, Fernandez moved to abate the three district court bill of review cases, and for Judge Herman to...

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