One issue that sometimes arises in Houston estate litigation is that of common law marriage. In many states, common law marriage is not recognized for legal purposes including probate. However, in Texas, both formal and informal marriage is recognized, and common law spouses may have inheritance rights.
However, it may be difficult to claim that you were a common law spouse and not a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend, as several grounds need to be proven in order to gain this recognition from the state of Texas. It is thus important for common law spouses to consider writing a will in order to avoid complicated probate issues.
Many may be familiar with the case regarding the author of the book that inspired the film Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. This man, Stieg Larsson, died without a will unexpectedly at the age of 50. He died before his books met international commercial success, and he left behind a live-in girlfriend who is now fighting for the right to his estate. He did not have a will.
The couple lived in Sweden, which does not recognize common law marriage. Nonetheless, similar litigation could arise in Texas for common law couples who do not have wills.
Larsson's brother and father inherited his $40 million estate, but his live-in girlfriend of 32 years has argued that he was not close to his family. The brother and father are now suing the girlfriend as well, because she is in possession of Larsson's laptop which contains his unpublished fourth novel. She has refused to turn it over, even when offered millions of dollars.
In Texas, there are several legal elements of a common law marriage. They include: the man and woman agreed to be married; after the agreement, they lived together in Texas as husband and wife; and, they told others that they were married. Proof of these elements may include tax returns, account applications and witness testimony.
In order to avoid expensive and complicated estate disputes, it is very important to have a will. And, as evidenced by Larsson's case, it is important to do this early because if not, the consequences can be devastating.
Source: Forbes, "Etta James, Others Remind Need for Estate Planning in 2012," Danielle and Andy Mayoras, Jan. 24, 2012