In Merrick v. Helter, a daughter who accused her father of sexual abuse attempted to void her father’s will based on public policy grounds. No. 03-14-00708-CV, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 8966 (Tex. App.—Austin August 18, 2016, no pet. history). Two days before the father died, he signed a will that left no property to his only child, the daughter, and explicitly disinherited her. After he died and his will was admitted to probate, the daughter filed a contest seeking to invalidate the will on public policy reasons and clear the way for her to inherit through intestate succession. Her principal theory was that her disinheritance violated “public policy”—namely Texas’s strong public policy against sexual abuse of children. As her factual predicate for that theory, she alleged that her father had abused her sexually while she was a teenager and had disinherited her after she confronted him with those allegations decades later. The executor filed a motion to dismiss under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 91a contesting whether the daughter’s “public policy” theory would be a viable basis in Texas law for the relief she sought even if her version of the facts were true. The probate court granted the Rule 91a motion and dismissed the daughter’s claim.
The court of appeals first addressed the relatively new Rule 91a motion to dismiss. The court noted that Rule 91a permits a party to “move to dismiss a cause of action on the grounds that it has no basis in law or fact.” Dismissal on a “no basis in law” ground is appropriate “if the allegations, taken as true, together with inferences reasonably drawn from them, do not entitle the claimant to the relief sought.” The court held that whether this standard is met “depends ‘solely on the pleading of the cause of action.’”
The court then moved onto the central issue in the case: whether the daughter could void the will due to public policy reasons. The court noted that the general rule is that a person of sound mind has a perfect legal right to dispose of his property as he wishes and may disinherit an heir if he desires. The daughter relied on authority that certain terms in wills may be deemed unenforceable on “public policy” grounds. She argued that: Texas public policy strongly condemns sexual abuse, particularly sexual abuse of minors, or conduct aimed at concealing or aiding it; that the father used his will and her disinheritance from it as a means of “silencing” her from divulging the sexual abuse and subsequently “punishing” her for confronting him about it; and the will provision disinheriting her runs afoul of the aforementioned Texas public policy, rendering the provision unenforceable.
The court stated that will construction cases dealt with ascertaining the objective meaning of the language actually used within the “four corners of the will,” not from perceptions of the testator’s subjective intent. The court noted that the daughter’s “public policy” challenge was grounded entirely in asserted conditions or limitations that appear nowhere in the will’s text and allegations about the father’s subjective motives in drafting the will as he did. The court also held: “Even if we were to look beyond the will’s ‘four corners,’ Merrick failed to allege facts to support any theory that Cole conditioned Merrick’s inheritance on her remaining silent about the claimed sexual abuse.”
Finally, the court held:
But more critically, Merrick’s arguments erroneously presume that she has any entitlement to an inheritance from Cole in the first instance. On the contrary, as this Court recently observed in Anderson, “a prospective beneficiary’s interest in receiving an inheritance is merely in the nature of an expectancy or hope,” and it was for this reason we held that an inheritance falls short of the type of protected contractual or economic interest whose disturbance could be actionable through the tortious-interference tort. Undergirding that analysis, we explained, was the “perfect legal right” of a testator with sound mind “to dispose of his property as he wishes,” a right that includes, as previously noted, the prerogative of disinheriting an heir if the testator sees fit. Further, as Helter emphasizes, the Legislature has not seen fit either to require testators in Cole’s alleged position either to provide an inheritance for their victim or to proscribe them from disinheriting the victim. The closest the Legislature has come is to authorize probate courts to bar a parent from inheriting from a child (the reverse of the situation here) who dies intestate (whereas here there is a will) where the parent has been convicted or placed on community supervision for certain crimes against that child, including sexual offenses (and no such criminal charges or dispositions occurred here). In the very least, we can say with certainty that the Legislature has not seen fit—at least as of yet—to authorize, let alone require, the recovery Merrick seeks.
The court of appeals affirmed the dismissal, finding that the daughter’s public policy argument found no support in the will, the factual allegations, or the law.