Battle to control Parrie Haynes Ranch generates interest, creates questions

Debate over the intended use and future of the Parrie Haynes Ranch continues to concern a variety of Texas interest groups.  The 4,500 acre central Texas property provides outdoor learning and other recreational opportunities to assorted children from orphans and other “at risk” youth to school and military-sponsored organizations to groups like 4-H, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Its fate will likely be decided based on the passage or defeat of House Bill 244, a bill which transfers control of the property from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to the Department of Family and Protective Services.  The bill also provides for lease or sale of the ranch.

Fifteen months ago, per the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission’s recommendation, TPWD assumed formal responsibility of the Parrie Haynes Ranch and began working on a management plan as per the Commission’s directive.  Since the 1960s, Texas Youth Commission (or its predecessors) had operated the ranch but with mixed results.  In the early ’90s, official control remained with TYC, but a lease agreement with TPWD was brokered.

Under the lease the department not only took on management duties, but began hosting outdoor learning and recreational opportunities for all ages with an emphasis on youth programs.  The management change also allowed this central Texas wilderness with its unique outdoor learning and recreational environment to become accessible to more than 2 million people within the locale’s 75 mile radius.

In November 2008, the Sunset Advisory Commission noted judicial action as the state-mandated process for transferring control of the trust containing the 4,500 acre property from the Texas Youth Commission to the Parks and Wildlife Department.  As an estate bequest to the state, the Commission cited TPWD as “well positioned to operate the Ranch in accordance with Parrie Haynes’ wishes” and subsequently ordered TYC and TPWD to work jointly with the Attorney General’s office and appropriate courts in executing the transfer.  This process was underway yet stopped when Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, filed HB 244 which appears to contradict the Sunset Commission’s recommendation both by calling for the legislature, not the courts, to authorize the management change as well as by ordering a transfer of ranch control not to TPWD, but instead to the Department of Family and Protective Services.

Parrie Haynes’ estate was designated “for the use and benefit of orphan children.”  Haynes’ 1954 will directed her residuary estate to help orphans, however with her 1957 death, the Killeen Independent School District receiving an additional bequest of $100,000 for scholarships suggests Haynes’ interests extended to assorted youth benevolence efforts.  Ranch lore tells of Haynes’ unsuccessful attempt in giving land to the Girl Scouts – an additional indicator, some say, of an openness for her land to benefit a variety of children.

The care of orphans is much different today than during Parrie Haynes’ life.  Orphans are far more integrated into mainstream society.  Parrie Haynes likely never imagined how a breakdown of traditional family structures would create additional categories of children in need classified using new terms like “at risk.”  Her actions, however, did seem to indicate a non-exclusionary interest in both children and the use of her land and other resources.

Such considerations provide a reasonable position that an updated approach in using the Parrie Haynes Ranch is neither an affront nor comes at the expense of today’s orphans – it merely provides available opportunities to a wider youth population.  The Sunset Advisory Commission took a similar position directing TPWD to “expand its operations of the Ranch to provide services to Texas orphans in addition to the youth programs already in existence at the Ranch, to ensure that Ranch operations are aligned as closely as possible to the Haynes will in the future.”

The mere filing of House Bill 244 presents another point of dispute in this matter.  The Sunset Commission clearly stated:

Since the Ranch is held in trust, the Legislature cannot transfer the property outright; the State would need to get judicial approval of the transfer and a modification authorizing TPWD to use the Trust for purposes approved by the Court.

Such a transfer would include all properties, investments, and rights associated with the Haynes Trust, as determined by the court. In doing so, it would be incumbent upon TPWD to show the Court that its use of the property is more closely aligned with the intended use of the property as outlined in the Haynes will than other potential uses of the property by the State. Although a court may modify the terms of the trust in the future, while still coming as close as possible to fulfilling the wishes of the Haynes will, this recommendation is based on the findings that TPWD’s current activities on the Ranch are already more closely aligned with the intent of the will than other uses.

It is curious that the Department of Family and Protective Services, an agency seemingly far less prepared to manage a 4,500 acre facility compared to TPWD, would not be subject to the same process and criteria.  And with this deviation, would a transfer based on the passage of House Bill 244 be a valid act?

Nonetheless, the parties on both sides are lining up.  Hartnett says the Center for Public Policy Priorities, came to him seeking the agency change.  Per the organization’s web site:

The center was born from faith and a vision of social justice in 1985 when the Congregation of Benedictine Sisters in Boerne, Texas founded the center to improve health care access for the poor.

Over the years, the center slowly grew in size and in scope. By the time it became an independent research organization in 1999, its focus had expanded to ensure not just health care, but good nutrition, jobs, and education and protection for Texas children.

Today’s priorities include six major areas:

•Creating economic opportunity to strengthen families and grow the middle class;
•Increasing access to quality, affordable health insurance;
•Helping families meet basic needs;
•Enhancing child well-being and child protection;
•Ensuring effective public administration; and
•Security fair and adequate taxation to pay for critical public investments in Texas.

On the other side, the Friends of the Parrie Haynes Ranch helped initially broker the lease between TYC and TPWD and their mission statement confirms the group’s continuing TPWD support:

Friends of the Parrie Haynes Ranch,Inc. is a Citizen Volunteer Support Organization whose purpose is to provide support that enables Parrie Haynes Ranch to contribute to the mission of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department by providing outdoor learning and recreational opportunities to Texans, especially the youth of Texas, while preserving and protecting the natural and cultural resources of the Ranch.

Rep. Ralph Sheffield, R-Temple, whose district includes the ranch, has expressed opposition to HB 244.  Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has spoken of being “acutely aware” of community concerns.  Fears of DFPS-control bringing a selloff of the land – a clear provision of HB 244 – are a special concern also routinely voiced on the Save Parrie Haynes Ranch Facebook page.

The Bell County Commissioners as well as the Coryell County Commissioners have issued resolutions supporting TPWD management of the ranch.  Further support by the Greater Houston Horse Council, users of the 30+ miles of ranch trails, illustrates how TPWD also brings leadership adept at creating and managing income-generating opportunities to help offset other facility-related costs.

House Bill 244 has been assigned to the Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence although no public hearing has yet been scheduled.  Whenever it happens, the intent of Parrie Haynes’ final wishes, the fulfillment of those wishes, the protection of Texas orphans’ interests plus the process and motivation for transferring property control are all topics likely to be addressed.

In talking with The Texas Tribune, Hartnett recently characterized potential loser-pays legislation as an “uphill battle this session, given all the other pressing items that the Legislature has to deal with.”  Ironically, one might expect the Parrie Haynes Ranch to also fall into this category.  That it doesn’t is why the timing and motivation of HB 244 continues generating interest and creating questions.

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture.  She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas Foundation and a Director of Women on the Wall.  Lou Ann may be contacted at [email protected].

Poaching personal liberty, property creates demands for probate system reform

An aging population, longevity, economic uncertainty and liberal definitions of “incapacitation” are factors creating an environment in which people of all ages find their individual liberties and assets being threatened.  Probate instruments (wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney) are becoming choice tools in these efforts.  Mounting pressure has states like Texas and Arizona addressing probate abuse with resulting policy battles positioning lawmakers between a public demanding meaningful probate reform and a legal industry seeking to maintain its lucrative status quo viewed by many as predatory in nature.

Probate reform is about protecting people from a legal venue that has become a growth industry for unscrupulous Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA) perpetrators adept at using probate courts and instruments to hijack personal liberties as well as to loot private assets.  These actions often negatively impact taxpayers as IRA actions can lead to people never before eligible or inclined to also end up on public welfare rolls.

Senate Bill 286, recently left pending before the Texas’ Senate Jurisprudence Committee, illustrates a growing tension between legislators and those adamantly seeking reform.  If passed, this bill allows judges in guardianship proceedings to assess costs, including attorney’s fees, “among the parties as the court finds is fair and just.”

At a recent hearing, Sen. Chris Harris (R-Arlington), the bill’s author, said he’s trying to preserve wards’ estates – currently the main source from which guardianship-related legal costs are deducted – by providing a vehicle to hold initiators of non-meritorious cases financially responsible.

Guy Herman, Presiding Judge of the Statutory Probate Courts of Texas, spoke in favor of the bill attributing certain probate disputes to sibling rivalry or long-standing family grudges.  While this bill and SB 220, another bill featuring a similar provision, are theoretically sound, advocates with probate court experience rightfully fear a different use of such legislation.

Probate judges, often in conjunction with probate lawyers, are routinely cited as sources of estate abuse.  Growing media scrutiny supports this trend though criminal or professional consequences rarely occur.  And if they can afford participation in the pay-to-play civil court system, targeted parties still often suffer unresolved, sometimes irreparable, harm.

The legal industry comprises lawyers, judges and other court-associated personnel and its talking points promote a “blame the disgruntled families” position.  Limited legitimacy to this point exists.  Interested parties responding to unnecessarily aggressive guardianships or other estate looting actions also legitimately occurs – a point these insiders rarely acknowledge.  And with this, tension over prospective legislation endures.

Targets of abusive probate actions know how theoretical public safeguards built into the probate system can in fact be executed in a manner harmful to the public and beneficial to IRA perpetrators.  Opponents of SB 286 see the bill as giving judges a new retaliatory power against families fighting questionable probate actions.  This power could additionally serve as a deterrent for those seeking to further address probate corruption.

Taxpayer-funded entities using taxpayer funds to lobby for government-friendly legislation that doesn’t necessarily serve taxpayer interests is a troubling trend in and of itself.  This recently published Dallas County legislative priority shows how taxpayer-funded lobbying can work as well as gives new perspective to potential uses of SB 286:

Exempt the county from paying the fees of a poor ward in probate court if the ward’s family is affluent. The probate judge would charge the fee to the family in these cases.

SB 286 says the court may allocate costs “among the parties as the court finds is fair and just.”  While the bill may righteously intend to protect against frivolous probate actions, might a Dallas County probate judge use its non-specific language for the “fair and just” assessment of probate court costs because families appear “affluent”?  This could be especially dangerous at a time when overextended counties are urgently looking for cost-shifting opportunities.

Stranger things happen in probate courts on a daily basis.

While Sen. Harris appeared quite earnest in speaking about SB 286, experience fosters extreme caution and skepticism in those having lived through probate system abuse so the tension continues.  Opportunity exists, however, if this measure were part of a reform package.

The Arizona legislature is currently looking at HB 2424 which provides an important starting point for key probate reform measures.  The bill:

  • requires probate law training for judges.
  • establishes an accountability panel with private citizens.
  • eliminates hearsay from evidence.
  • enforces the rights of personal directives.
  • keeps families involved in their loved one’s care.
  • demands a written accounting of expenses from the ward’s estate.
  • allows for a change of fiduciary.

HB 2424 was created in response to experiences documented by a growing state-level grassroots reform movement that includes probate abuse victims.  As in Texas, Arizona lawmakers find themselves between citizens demanding reform of a corrupt system and the system’s caretakers who advocate measures viewed by many as self-serving and “feel good” rather than substantive.

Legal and financial interests that strongly oppose HB 2424 are instead supporting SB 1499 which provides few public protection remedies and was written largely by those who control – and often profit from – Arizona’s probate system.

Despite opposition efforts from four different lobbying houses, HB 2424 continues to make its way through the Arizona legislature due to lawmakers so far connecting more with public reform demands than with legal and financial interests controlling the state’s probate system.

With all the 82nd Texas Legislature is facing, probate reform was never expected to be a hot-button issue.  At the same time, however, vigilance is required.  Stopping unintended but potentially harmful legislation can be as important as passing good.  An Arizona-style probate reform package incorporating SB 286 or similar language is needed in Texas.  And if strongly opposed by the legal industry, that’s a good signal the bill is likely to provide the public true protections from the otherwise predatory culture surrounding the probate system.

For more information:

Disney grandson at forefront of Arizona reform (March 4, 2011)

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture.  She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas Foundation and a Director of Women on the Wall.  Lou Ann may be contacted at [email protected].