If a living person owes you money, under Tennessee law, generally, you have six years to file a breach of contract lawsuit against that person to collect your money. Once that person passes away, however, certain Tennessee laws set time deadlines for filing claims against estates. These laws may drastically shorten the time within which you must take action on your claim or lose it.
It is not necessary that you have a court judgment against the deceased person for the debt you are owed in order to make a claim against the estate of the deceased person. The personal representative of the deceased person's estate might challenge your claim by filing an "exception" to it, but cannot prevent you from filing your claim and bringing it before the probate court.
In Tennessee, the longest period that a creditor ever has to file a claim against an estate is twelve months from the date of the death of the deceased. That time period may be shorter (as discussed below). The reasoning behind requiring creditors to file their claims with a probate court within no later than one year of the death of the deceased is to allow heirs and beneficiaries of the estate of the deceased to receive their distributions without having to contend with the claims of creditors made years after the distributions.
In Tennessee, claims against the estate of a deceased person must be filed with the probate court within four months from the date the probate court clerk first publishes what is referred to as a "Notice to Creditors." Such notices to creditors are required to be published for two consecutive weeks in a newspaper in the county where the probate court in which the probate action has been filed is located. The probate court clerk is required to publish a notice to creditors within thirty days after the probate court issues letters testamentary or letters of administration. In Nashville, such notices are typically published in The Tennessean, City Paper, Nashville Scene, or Nashville Ledger.
There are two exceptions to the four month period for filing claims against an estate. The first exception applies where a creditor receives "actual notice" of the published notice. Creditors receive "actual notice" with frequency as, under Tennessee law, a personal representative is required to mail a copy of the published notice to "all creditors of the decedent of whom the personal representative has actual knowledge or who are reasonably ascertainable by the personal representative...."
If a creditor receives actual notice from the personal representative within the timeframe set forth in the statute (T.C.A. section 30-2-307, which is too complex to cover in this blog), the creditor's claim must be filed with the probate court within 60 days of the creditor's receipt of the notice sent by the personal representative.
The second exception to the four month deadline occurs where a creditor receives "actual notice" less than 60 days before the date that is twelve months from the decedent's date of death or receives no notice. In the event of either of those occurrences, the creditor has twelve months from the decedent's date of death to file its claim with the probate court.
If there is a dispute between the personal representative and the creditor as to either (1) whether the personal representative was required to send notice to the creditor; or, (2) whether the personal representative properly sent the notice, the burden of proof is on the creditor to prove its position. Keep in mind that, under long standing Tennessee law, the fact that a creditor did not know about the death of the person who owed the creditor money is immaterial. Standing alone, that fact does not, in any way, relieve the creditor from the deadlines set forth under Tennessee law.