Texas is one of the few states in the union that does not have a “laughing heir” statute. A laughing heir is someone that is legally entitled to inherit from the decedent, but is so distantly related that he has no reason to feel bereaved over the decedent’s death.
The genesis for the proposed legislation is an heirship proceeding currently pending in Dallas County. The decedent died intestate having revoked his will just prior to his death without executing a new one. A family member filed an application to determine the decedent’s heirs and an attorney ad litem was appointed to represent the unknown heirs. The attorney ad litem’s duty is to ensure that all heirs are before the court and must satisfy himself of that through speaking with witnesses and reviewing documents such as birth and death certificates, obituaries, and adoption records. Oftentimes, this leads to a great deal of research to determine the identity of the decedent’s heirs when it is not readily apparent. In the previously mentioned case, the decedent died unmarried and without children. He was not survived by any siblings or his parents; his heirs were not readily apparent. The ad litem’s research led to the discovery of eleven (11) heirs on the decedent’s maternal side and one hundred sixty-eight (168) heirs on the decedent’s paternal side. Tracking down the heirs and the hundreds of documents necessary to establish their relation to the decedent took almost a year.
The proposed statute would adopt the Uniform Probate Code that eliminates the intestate inheritance rights of relatives that are more remote than the decedent’s grandparents and their descendants. In other words, any person that is related to the decedent through great-grandparents or beyond would not receive any inheritance, which would escheat to the State of Texas. The proposed statute, however, would not apply to gifts in wills or trusts that pass to a person’s “heirs.”