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Just because someone expressly revokes a prior will when they make a new will does not mean that the revoked will can never be effective again. Given, it is rare that a revoked will is revived in Tennessee probate litigation, but it has happened.

In a recently decided probate lawsuit, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee upheld a trial court’s revival of a will which had been expressly revoked. Here are the basic facts:

  • Dad had three adult children (two daughters and a son)
  • Dad had a companion with whom he had lived with in his house for about 30 years named Rebecca Dudley
  • In 2005, Dad executed a will which left real and personal property equally to his three children and in which he granted Ms. Dudley a life estate in his house, vehicle, garage and yard
  • In the 2005 will, Dad’s residuary estate was left solely to his son
  • In 2011, Dad executed a new will
  • The 2011 will expressly revoked all prior wills
  • The 2011 will was just like his 2005 will, except it divided his residuary estate equally among his children
  • Dad died at age 77 at which time he was of sound mind
  • The original of the 2011 will could not be found
  • The original of the 2005 will was found in Dad’s personal file cabinet

After Dad’s death, his children took the position that he had died intestate. If he had died intestate, Ms. Dudley would not be entitled to a life estate in any of Dad’s property. Ms. Dudley took the position that the 2005 will had been revived after it was revoked.  Both the trial court and the appellate court agreed with Ms. Dudley’s position. The appellate court’s opinion is discussed in this blog.

The court pointed out that, under long-standing Tennessee probate law, a revoked will can be revived. In order for a revoked will to be revived, the proponent of the will must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the testator intended to revive the revoked will.

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Sometimes in a breach of contract case, or other commercial litigation matter, a party will be met with the defense that it is not entitled to recover because a condition precedent to the parties’ contract was not fulfilled. Under Tennessee law, a party is not required to perform under a contract unless and until a condition precedent agreed upon by both parties has been satisfied.  However, and very importantly, to rely successfully on the defense that a condition precedent was not satisfied, a party must first prove that there was a condition precedent.

Because conditions precedent have a tendency to result in harsh and unfair outcomes, Tennessee courts disfavor finding the existence of conditions precedent. Sometimes, even when they do find a condition precedent which was indisputably not satisfied, nevertheless, they do not allow that fact to permit a party to avoid performance.

A leading case on conditions precedent in Tennessee was decided by the Supreme Court of Tennessee in 1996. In that case, Koch v. Construction Technology, Inc., a subcontractor filed a breach of contract case alleging that the general contractor had failed to pay it for the entire amount due for work done on a project owned by the Memphis Housing Authority (“MHA”).  In defense, the general contractor claimed that it was not required to pay the entire balance it owed to the subcontractor because a condition precedent to its performance had not been fulfilled.

The written contract between the contractor and subcontractor in the Koch case contained a provision referred to as a “pay when paid” clause.  It stated: “Partial payments subject to all applicable provisions of the Contract shall be made when and as payments are received by the Contractor.”  The general contractor argued that the only amount for which it had not paid the subcontractor was the amount MHA had not paid it.  It also argued that the above language created a condition precedent.

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There are two categories of Tennessee partition cases. A partition in kind occurs when a court divides property owned by joint tenants between or among them. A partition by sale occurs when the court orders the sale of the property so that the proceeds can be divided between or among the joint owners.

In Tennessee, the law has long been that a partition in kind is preferred and that a partition by sale will only be granted under two conditions: (1) Where the property cannot be divided (for example, a property, some parts of which would not have public access if divided, or a property that cannot be divided into smaller tracts because of a restrictive covenant); or (2) where the property would bring more money sold as a whole than the joints owners’ shares would bring if sold individually.

In reality, very many jointly owned properties cannot be partitioned in kind, especially properties in more developed and regulated areas as opposed those in rural areas. Even if all of the property cannot be partitioned in kind, under Tennessee partition law, a court can make a partial partition in kind.  In other words, it can exclude some property from a partition by sale and vest it in one or more joint owners.

In Breen v. Sharp (Tenn. Ct. App. 2017), two nephews and their aunt owned, as tenants in common, three non-contiguous tracts of undeveloped rural land. Aunt owned fifty percent (50%) and her nephews owned twenty-five percent (25%) each.  The nephews wanted to partition all of the land by sale.  Aunt wanted a partition in kind because, on the western side of one of the tracts (“Tract 2”), was the location of land that had sentimental value as it had been the location of a schoolhouse where her family members had taught and attended.

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Whether or not a will has or has not been revoked can sometimes be the subject of probate litigation in Tennessee courts. The answer to that question may also determine who receives a substantial amount of money or other property.

There is a Tennessee statute, T.C.A. §32-1-201, which sets forth several methods by which a will, or part of a will, can be revoked. Under that statute, a will, or any part of the will, may be revoked by:

(1)         A subsequent will.  Usually, wills expressly state that they revoke all previous wills. The statute also provides that, even if the will does not expressly revoke a prior will, it does so if it is inconsistent with the prior will.

(2)         A document of revocation which is executed in the same manner as an attested will or a holographic will which expressly revokes the prior will or a part of it.

(3)         If the will is “burned, torn, cancelled, obliterated or destroyed” with the intent to revoke.  This method is effective if done by the testator, or by someone acting for the testator and in his or her presence when the act is performed.

(4)         A marriage of the testator occurring after the will was made and the birth of a child of the testator after the will was made.

The provision allowing a will, or part thereof, to be revoked by being “cancelled” was interpreted by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in the case of In re Estate of Warren (Tenn. Ct. App 1999).  This is an important case with which any Tennessee probate litigation attorney should be familiar.  Here are the facts: Continue reading →

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In a recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in the case of Stokely v. Stokely, it upheld the trial court’s decision in a Tennessee partition case in which the trial court had dismissed the claims of the joint owners who sought to partition the land in question.  The case is notable for a couple of points.

First, it is authority that establishes that, in Tennessee, real estate cannot be partitioned when one joint owner has a life estate (at least as long as that joint owner is alive). This is an exception to the general rule that any joint owner is entitled to a partition whenever that owner so desires one. Second, it reiterates the rule that, when you sign legal documents, you cannot avoid the consequences by claiming that you did not fully understand what you signed.

Here are the basic facts of the case:

  • Mother owned a house and land (“Property”) in which she lived with one of her children, Anna
  • Including Anna, there were seven siblings (“Siblings”)
  • Mother died without a will in 2003
  • Because Mother died without a will, all of her children, Siblings, inherited an equal interest in the Property
  • After Mother’s death, Siblings signed a Quitclaim Deed granting Anna a life estate in the Property
  • Some of the Siblings signed the Quitclaim Deed themselves, but the signature of four of them was effectuated by the use of a Power of Attorney they gave to a brother, who was one of the Siblings
  • The Power of Attorney expressly referenced that it was given so that the brother could sign a Quitclaim Deed reserving a life estate to Anna

Disagreements arose between the Siblings. In 2015, four of the Siblings filed a partition case in order to have the Property partitioned.  The trial court dismissed the partition case on two separate grounds. First, it found that a partition could not occur due to the life estate held by Anna. Second, it held that the cause of action to reform the Quitclaim Deed to rescind the life estate given to Anna, which was asserted by the Siblings who had filed the case, was barred by the statute of limitations.

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At the outset of a will contest case or undue influence case, clients often ask what to expect in terms of how the case will progress, what will need to be done before trial, and how long it will take to resolve the case.

For starters, let’s talk about the chances that a will contest or undue influence case will make it as far as a trial. The overwhelming majority of civil actions which are filed in Tennessee courts are settled or are resolved by a dispositive motion before a trial becomes necessary. In my experience, undue influence and will contest cases are generally more difficult to have dismissed before trial than many other types of Tennessee cases.  As well, they are often not as amenable to settlement, in my experience. So, the chances that a will contest or undue influence case will actually go to trial is somewhat greater than the chances that other types of cases will go to trial. Still, in my experience, most do settle short of a trial.

You are most likely to obtain an expedient settlement and a larger settlement if you retain a lawyer with experience handling will contest and undue influence cases and who opposing counsel knows will prepare your case for trial and try it unless a fair settlement is reached.

Our firm defends and prosecutes Tennessee will contest cases and undue influence cases. For purposes of this blog, I will give a perspective of how such cases progress when we are representing the will contestant or the party challenging a transaction on the basis of undue influence or fraud.

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Under Tennessee law (T.C.A. §48-25-102), a foreign business entity which is transacting, or has transacted, business in Tennessee without obtaining a certificate of authority from the Secretary of State of Tennessee cannot maintain an action in a Tennessee court. This rule applies to lawsuits filed in Tennessee state courts, as well as to those filed in federal district courts located in Tennessee. See, e.g., In Re Meyer & Judd, 1 F. 2d 513, 526 (W.D. Tenn. 1924); G.M.L., Inc. v. Mayhew, 188 F. Supp. 2d 891, 893-94 (M.D. Tenn. 2002).

The process of obtaining a certificate of authority is also referred to as registering to do business in Tennessee. When a business entity registers to do business in Tennessee, it may be referred to as having been “domesticated” in Tennessee.

Any action filed in a Tennessee state court or a federal court located in Tennessee by a business entity transacting business in Tennessee without registering to do business in the state is subject to dismissal. Importantly, it is never too late to register to do business in Tennessee, and Tennessee law expressly allows an entity to register to do business and, thereafter, to continue its lawsuit. However, registering, after having failed to register for a number of years, can become expensive.

What does it mean to “transact business” in Tennessee such that a business must register to do business in Tennessee? The general rule is that a foreign business entity is transacting business in Tennessee when it transacts some substantial part of its ordinary business in Tennessee and its operations in Tennessee do not consist of mere casual or occasional transactions.  There is a Tennessee statute (T.C.A. §48-25-101) which delineates a number of things that do not constitute the transaction of business in Tennessee.  Perhaps a few of the most relevant are:

  • Holding meetings related to internal governance
  • Owning real estate
  • Maintaining bank accounts
  • Selling through independent contractors
  • Soliciting orders by mail which require acceptance outside of Tennessee
  • Creating or acquiring loans, security interests and deeds of trust
  • Conducting isolated transactions that are completed in one month
  • Transacting business in interstate commerce

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In a fairly recent Tennessee undue influence case, relatives claiming undue influence by another relative argued that there was undue influence because the provisions of the decedent’s last will were inconsistent with payable on death designations to CDs and bank accounts. That argument was rejected by the trial court and appellate court.  In Frank v. Fields (Tenn. Ct. App. 2017), the Court of Appeals of Tennessee upheld the decision of the trial court that the defendant had rebutted the presumption of undue influence.

Here is a summary of the facts of the case:

  • Ray Frank (“Frank”) had no children of his own, but was survived by two nieces and three nephews
  • One of Frank’s nephews was Fields
  • Fields moved back to Monroe County in 2004 at which time he began to spend quite a bit of time with his elderly uncle, Frank, and to help him quite a bit
  • Fields visited with his uncle about every day and transported him wherever he needed to go
  • The nieces and nephews who brought the undue influence case against Fields admitted that Fields never tried to isolate his uncle from them or to interfere with their relationship with their uncle (in my opinion, in most cases where undue influence has been exerted, there were efforts at isolation)
  • Prior to his death at age 95, Frank was almost blind for several years, and then totally blind
  • Prior to his death, Frank executed a power of attorney in favor of his nephew, Fields
  • In Frank’s last will, made in 2010, two years before he died, he bequeathed 50% of his estate to his two sisters and the remaining 50% to his two nieces and three nephews, which included Fields, to be divided equally among them
  • Prior to his death, Frank made changes to CDs and bank accounts worth at least $450,000 which resulted in Fields receiving those funds after Frank passed away
  • The monies from the CDs and accounts did not pass through the estate so none of the other nieces and nephews received any of those funds
  • Besides the money from the CDs and bank accounts, it does not appear from the opinion that Frank had any other significant assets

Since Fields did not dispute that he had a confidential relationship with Frank, under Tennessee law, a presumption arose that the changes Frank made to his accounts, which resulted in the funds therein passing outside of his will, were the result of the undue influence of Fields.

Besides arguing that Frank was old and blind, and therefore, presumably, did not appreciate his actions, the nieces and nephews challenging the transactions alleged that the undue influence of Fields was proven by Frank’s last will. The last will, they argued, showed that Frank wanted his nieces and nephews to share equally in half of his assets. Since that is what he wanted in his will, they argued, he could not have intended, of his own free will, to leave $450,000 exclusively to Fields.

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A lien lis pendens can be a very effective tool not only to preserve a claim against real estate, but also, to create leverage in litigation. Tennessee’s lien lis pendens statute is about as clear as mud, even to those of us accustomed to deciphering statutes drafted in the early twentieth century. To boot, Tennessee courts have given as little guidance to practitioners on the matter of liens lis pendens than on about any other legal topic of comparable significance of which I am aware.

What is a Lien Lis Pendens and What Does It Do? 

Before the enactment of the Tennessee lien lis pendens statute in 1932, under Tennessee common law, whenever a lawsuit was filed which asserted a claim in, or against, a specific piece of land, a lien was created against the land from the date of the filing of the suit. That lien was effective against all persons who might acquire an interest in the land after the lawsuit was filed.

The purpose of the lien lis pendens was to enable the court hearing the lawsuit to retain jurisdiction over the land pending the conclusion of the lawsuit. Without the lien lis pendens tool, a defendant sued over an interest in land might easily avoid justice by selling the land after the filing of the lawsuit. (If the defendant sold it to a bona fide purchaser, it would not be a fraudulent transfer which could be set aside.)  Court’s don’t like their judgments frustrated, and the lien lis pendens was created to prevent that.

Before the enactment of the lien lis pendens statute, the mere filing of the lawsuit created the lien lis pendens. That is not the case anymore (as discussed below).

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A recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in a fraudulent transfer case provides an excellent summary and roadmap of what it takes to prove a fraudulent transfer under Tennessee law. The Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act, which has been adopted in Tennessee, can be a bit much to get one’s head around, at least without a good bit of review and study.  The recent opinion is useful because the facts of it are tailor-made to demonstrate how the provisions of the Act are applied and the result.

Here are the key facts of the case:

  • Father owned an LLC, the business of which was installing drywall
  • Father owed a Drywall Supplier about $350,000
  • In October of 2007, Father signed a note to the Drywall Supplier for the amount he owed
  • In March of 2009, Father sold the LLC to his Son for $12,000
  • Drywall Supplier filed a lawsuit to set aside the transfer of the LLC to Son, alleging it was a fraudulent transfer

In its fraudulent transfer case, Drywall Supplier alleged that the transfer of the LLC to Son was a fraudulent transfer under the actual fraud statute and, also, under the constructive fraud statute, both of which are part of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act. The trial court found that the transfer was not fraudulent under either provision of the Act. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in all respects.

Under the actual fraud statute, a plaintiff must prove that the transfer was made “with actual intent to hinder, delay, or defraud” a creditor. Since proving fraudulent intent almost always requires circumstantial evidence, the statute lists eleven (11) factors that are to be considered in determining whether there was intent to defraud.  If a plaintiff is able to prove the existence of one or more of those factors (often called “badges of fraud”), a presumption of fraud arises.  Once that presumption has arisen, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that there was no fraudulent intent.

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