Will Construction

Res Judicata

Lorenz v. Janssen, 116 S.W.3d 421 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2003, no pet.).


Husband and Wife executed a joint will in 1941 providing for the survivor to receive a life estate in all the property with a life estate passing to their children upon the survivor’s death. The remainder passed to the “natural children” of Husband and Wife’s children. In 1956, the court declared that two children adopted by Daughter (“Adopted Grandchildren”) would not qualify as “natural children” and thus would not share in the remainder of the estate. Wife died in 1970 and the 1941 will was again probated with specific reference to the 1956 court action. Accordingly, when Daughter died in 1986 her interest passed to her surviving siblings instead of Adopted Grandchildren. In the present action, Adopted Grandchildren seek to set aside the 1956 judgment and the order admitting Wife’s will to probate. The trial court rejected Adopted Grandchildren’s claims.

The appellate court affirmed. The court held that the 1956 declaratory judgment was res judicata and thus precluded Adopted Grandchildren’s claims. The court determined that the court which rendered the 1956 judgment had subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate Adopted Grandchildren’s rights because the 1941 will was contractual. The 1941 will contractual because it (1) did not give the survivor an absolute or unconditional gift and (2) the remaining estate of the first to die and the estate of the last to die was treated as a single estate and jointly disposed of by both testators in the secondary dispositive provisions of the will.

Moral: Regardless of how much time has elapsed after a probate decision was rendered, someone may attempt to set it aside. The doctrine of res judicata will often be available to stop a relitigation of a finally-adjudicated claim.