Statutes of Limitations Applicable to Mutual Will Cases in Tennessee

By J. Ross Pepper on April 11, 2013 10:44 AM

The Supreme Court of Tennessee has issued an opinion clarifying which statutes of limitations are applicable to cases involving the breach of a contract to make mutual wills. If you are involved in a mutual will case, and are worried that your case might be barred by the statute of limitations which is applicable to claims against an estate, T.C.A. §30-2-307, your worries might be over.

In the case at hand, a married couple, both of whom were previously married, and both of whom had children by a previous marriage, signed a contract to make mutual wills. The same day that they signed the contract to make mutual wills, they executed wills. In the contract to make mutual wills, the husband and wife agreed that, when the first of them died, the survivor would not change his or her will.

The wills which the couple executed provided that each would receive a life estate in the real property they owned together or jointly and that, after both had passed away, the real property which they owned jointly or together, as of the time the wills were made, would pass in equal shares to the four children of both of them. (Husband had three children and wife had one, a son).

Husband died six days after the mutual wills were executed. Less than ten days after the husband died, the wife executed a new will in which she left her entire estate to her son ("Wife's Son"). After the wife died, Wife's Son filed a petition to probate his mother's will (the will that left everything to him, of course).

When husband's three children learned about the probate action filed by Wife's Son, they filed a complaint in Knox County Chancery Court. In their lawsuit, they alleged that Wife's Son had obtained the will of his mother by undue influence, they set forth a will contest claim, and they sought a declaratory judgment for specific enforcement of the contract to make mutual wills.

On appeal, Wife's Son argued that the Chancery Court case was barred by the statute of limitations. The Chancery Court case had been filed one year and nine days after the death of wife. The statute of limitations for filing claims against an estate, T.C.A. §30-2-307, required that claims against an estate be filed within twelve months of the date of the death of the deceased (if the claimants did not receive notice of the probate proceeding, which the children of husband did not). So, argued Wife's Son, the Chancery Court case was barred by the statute of limitations because it was filed nine days late.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that one way to challenge a will on the grounds that it breached a contract to make mutual wills is to file a claim against the estate. That way, however, is not the only way. The two other ways that a party may challenge a will in Tennessee on the grounds that it breached a mutual will contract, said the Supreme Court, are: (1) to file a will contest case; or (2) to file an action for specific performance (which is a variety of a breach of contract case).

The statute of limitations for filing a will contest case is two years after the entry of the order admitting the challenged will to probate. Since the children of husband had filed their Chancery Court action well before the two year statute of limitations for will contests had run, their case was not barred.

For will contest lawyers in Tennessee, this opinion provides clarity about the statutes of limitations applicable in cases involving mutual wills. There can now be no doubt that we have at least two years from the date of the entry of the order admitting the will to probate to file the case. Will contest lawyers who proceed by filing not only a will contest, but also, a breach of contract action for specific performance, should have even longer than that two years. Why? The reason is because the statute of limitations for a breach of contract action in Tennessee is typically six years.