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San Antonio Lawyer Phil Ross’s Court Case(s) Went Viral Until The Virus. Now Everyone is Waiting.

San Antonio Lawyer Phil Ross, known for his combative style has been sued by the State Bar of Texas and is in court on highly publicized civil cases. But then the pandemic came…

LIT COMMENTARY

Published; 7th October, 2020

San Antonio Lawyer Phil Ross, known for his combative style has been sued by the State Bar of Texas and is in court on highly publicized civil cases. But then the pandemic came and everything went quiet. Now we’re all waiting for the reboot.

Dog ‘ate the will’ case headed to trial

Originally published; June 4, 2020 | Republished by LIT: Oct. 7, 2020

Everyone has heard about the schoolboy’s dubious claim that a dog ate his homework.

But how often has a probate judge been told that a lawyer’s dog ate the original will?

That is among the issues before Bexar Probate Judge Oscar Kazen in a case involving the estate of Billie Ray Hood, who died in San Antonio in 2014.

Debra Ann Catalani, one of Hood’s daughters, said the 2009 will — which gave everything to Hood’s three children — was consumed by a pooch belonging to her lawyer, William E. Leighner.

“Decedent’s original Will was purloined from Leighner’s study by an unruly two-year-old Golden Doodle named Linus, who took said original Will through the doggy door, into the back yard and devoured it,” she asserted in a pleading filed by her lawyer shortly after her mother’s death.

“What remained of the original Will, blowing about the back yard was the left half portion of page 1, and small fragments of pages 2 and 3.”

This peculiar episode may soon resurface in a nasty family struggle over Billie Ray Hood’s assets, estimated to be worth more than $50,000. Most of it is Hood’s communal share of the family home.

Six years before drafting the 2009 will, Hood had made another will giving all her assets to her husband Jack Hood, who was not the father of her three children.

And now, Kristi Hood, 66, one of Jack Hood’s children by his first wife Jerline, is contesting the second will, asserting that the earlier one is the only “valid will” before the court.

“I can’t sell the house until I have clear title to it,” said Kristi, 66, “And I can’t let them probate the fraudulent will because it says everything goes to them.”

She said her offers to her step-siblings to split the proceeds from the home sale were rejected.

Jack and Billie Hood were married for 39 years. He outlived her, dying in February 2019 at age 95.

The first legal challenge to Billie Hood’s second will was made in 2015 by Jack Hood’s guardian, but it then lay dormant until last year.

According to Leighner, it should now be dismissed for lack of prosecution.

“Plaintiff has not sought discovery, or in any way or form, sought a trial date,” he wrote in a pleading. “This case has aged long past the point where it could be considered diligently prosecuted.”

And, he said, even though the original version of the 2009 will is long gone, that does not pose a serious obstacle to a copy eventually being admitted.

“You can probate a copy of a will, as long as you can prove that the original was not revoked by the decedent, that it was destroyed or lost by other means, and we all know what that was,” he said.

But that task won’t be necessary, he said, until the will contest is resolved.

The case is set for trial next month, but because of the courthouse shutdown due to the pandemic, Leighner said, it likely won’t happen before this fall, if it happens at all.

Kristi Hood’s lawyer, Phil Ross, claims there are other reasons to challenge the 2009 will, foremost that Billie Ray Hood was not mentally competent to make a second will just five years before her death.

“I’ve got a doctor’s report that Billie Hood was incapacitated when she drafted the second will in 2009,” said Ross, adding that she may have been “unduly influenced” by Catalani to “remove her husband as beneficiary and replace him with her three children.”

Years before the will dispute arose, a larger family battle played out in Bexar probate court between Jack Hood and his stepdaughter Catalani over who would be in charge of Billie’s affairs.

Although the probate code says that the spouse of an incapacitated person “acquires full power to manage, control and dispose of” their community property, Probate Court Judge Tom Rickhoff appointed Catalani as permanent guardian of her mother’s person and estate.

Jack Hood took the case to the Fourth Court of Appeals, which reversed Rickhoff’s order. Rickhoff recused himself from the case soon afterward.

However the case goes, it’s unlikely that the last Linus the paper-eating-pooch joke has been heard.

“I was surprised that he wrote in his pleadings that his dog ate the will,” Ross said. “What lawyer has a dog for a secretary that has access to his client’s files? Who would admit that?”

Leighner said that Linus is kept away from important legal paperwork, but has been known to eat the mail.

“The last thing I wanted to do was try to cover this up, even though I knew they would razz me up and down,” he said of his fellow lawyers.

“I got a lot of cute and funny e-mails, as I expected. If the shoe were on the other foot, I’d do the same thing.”

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