In In re Estate of Ethridge, a testatrix signed a will that provided that “all my personal effects” would be devised to her nephew in law and that her half interest in a home went to another person. No. 11-17-00291-CV, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 9564 (Tex. App.—Eastland October 31, 2019, no pet.). The trial court concluded that the term “all my personal effects” did not include all of the testatrix’s property other than the home, and that she died partially intestate. The nephew in law, who had argued to the contrary, appealed.

The court of appeals described the commonly understood meaning of “personal effects”:

Personal effects has customarily been defined narrowly as a subset of personal property. Estate of Neal, No. 02-16-00381-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 120, 2018 WL 283780, at *4 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Jan. 4, 2018, no pet.) (mem. op.). The term generally refers to articles bearing intimate relation or association to the person of the testator. Id.; see also Dearman v. Dutschmann, 739 S.W.2d 454, 455 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1987, writ denied) (explaining that “personal effects” are “articles of personal property” that bear an intimate relation to a person, such as “clothing, jewelry, and similar chattels”); Teaff v. Ritchey, 622 S.W.2d 589, 591-92 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 1981, no writ) (defining “personal effects” to include items such as “clothes, toilet articles, eye glasses[,] and dentures”); First Methodist Episcopal Church S. v. Anderson, 110 S.W.2d 1177, 1182 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1937, writ dism’d) (finding “personal effects” to mean “articles pertaining to or associated with the person of the deceased, such as wearing apparel, luggage, jewelry, and the like”). “[W]here the meaning of the language used in the will has been settled by usage and sanctioned by judicial decisions, it is presumed to be used in the sense that the law has given to it, and should be so construed, unless the context of the will shows a clear intention to the contrary.” Stephens v. Beard, 485 S.W.3d 914, 917 (Tex. 2016) (alteration in original) (quoting Mitchell v. Mitchell, 151 Tex. 1, 244 S.W.2d 803, 806 (Tex. 1951)). As was the case in Stephens, Mildred’s will does not clearly demonstrate an intent to use “personal effects” contrary to its well-settled legal usage. See id.

Id. The court held that mineral interests do not fall within the typical definition of personal effects. The court held “it does not appear that Mildred intended ‘personal effects’ to include any of her real property.” Id.

The court held that because the testatrix’s will did not contain a residuary clause, it failed to dispose of all of her property and she died partially intestate. The court held that the following presumption did not apply: “[t]he mere making of a will is evidence that the testator had no intent to die intestate and creates a presumption that the testator intended to dispose of his entire estate, and that he did not intend to die intestate as to the whole or any part of his property.” Id. Finally, the court affirmed the trial court’s finding that the nephew in law had improperly taken possession of assets of the estate.

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Photo of David Fowler Johnson David Fowler Johnson

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David maintains an active trial and appellate practice and has consistently worked on financial institution litigation matters throughout his career. David is the primary author of the The Fiduciary Litigator blog, which reports on legal cases and issues impacting the fiduciary…

[email protected]

David maintains an active trial and appellate practice and has consistently worked on financial institution litigation matters throughout his career. David is the primary author of the The Fiduciary Litigator blog, which reports on legal cases and issues impacting the fiduciary field in Texas. Read More

David’s financial institution experience includes (but is not limited to): breach of contract, foreclosure litigation, lender liability, receivership and injunction remedies upon default, non-recourse and other real estate lending, class action, RICO actions, usury, various tort causes of action, breach of fiduciary duty claims, and preference and other related claims raised by receivers.

David also has experience in estate and trust disputes including will contests, mental competency issues, undue influence, trust modification/clarification, breach of fiduciary duty and related claims, and accountings. David’s recent trial experience includes:

  • Representing a bank in federal class action suit where trust beneficiaries challenged whether the bank was the authorized trustee of over 220 trusts;
  • Representing a bank in state court regarding claims that it mismanaged oil and gas assets;
  • Representing a bank who filed suit in probate court to modify three trusts to remove a charitable beneficiary that had substantially changed operations;
  • Represented an individual executor of an estate against claims raised by a beneficiary for breach of fiduciary duty and an accounting; and
  • Represented an individual trustee against claims raised by a beneficiary for breach of fiduciary duty, mental competence of the settlor, and undue influence.

David is one of twenty attorneys in the state (of the 84,000 licensed) that has the triple Board Certification in Civil Trial Law, Civil Appellate and Personal Injury Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

Additionally, David is a member of the Civil Trial Law Commission of the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. This commission writes and grades the exam for new applicants for civil trial law certification.

David maintains an active appellate practice, which includes:

  • Appeals from final judgments after pre-trial orders such as summary judgments or after jury trials;
  • Interlocutory appeals dealing with temporary injunctions, arbitration, special appearances, sealing the record, and receiverships;
  • Original proceedings such as seeking and defending against mandamus relief; and
  • Seeking emergency relief staying trial court’s orders pending appeal or mandamus.

For example, David was the lead appellate lawyer in the Texas Supreme Court in In re Weekley Homes, LP, 295 S.W.3d 309 (Tex. 2009). The Court issued a ground-breaking opinion in favor of David’s client regarding the standards that a trial court should follow in ordering the production of computers in discovery.

David previously taught Appellate Advocacy at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law located in Fort Worth. David is licensed and has practiced in the U.S. Supreme Court; the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh Federal Circuits; the Federal District Courts for the Northern, Eastern, and Western Districts of Texas; the Texas Supreme Court and various Texas intermediate appellate courts. David also served as an adjunct professor at Baylor University Law School, where he taught products liability and portions of health law. He has authored many legal articles and spoken at numerous legal education courses on both trial and appellate issues. His articles have been cited as authority by the Texas Supreme Court (twice) and the Texas Courts of Appeals located in Waco, Texarkana, Beaumont, Tyler and Houston (Fourteenth District), and a federal district court in Pennsylvania. David’s articles also have been cited by McDonald and Carlson in their Texas Civil Practice treatise, William v. Dorsaneo in the Texas Litigation Guide, and various authors in the Baylor Law ReviewSt. Mary’s Law JournalSouth Texas Law Review and Tennessee Law Review.

Representative Experience

  • Civil Litigation and Appellate Law