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Judge And Jury At Odds In Recent Will Contest And Undue Influence Case

In a recent will contest and undue influence case decided by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the Court of Appeals sustained the decision of the trial judge to set aside the verdict of the jury and to grant a new trial. The opinion of the court of appeals, which characterized the case as a “classic will contest case,” discusses two of the grounds upon which wills are frequently contested: (1) Lack of competency of the person who executes the will; and (2) undue influence.
(A will can be held invalid if the person who executed it was competent, but, nevertheless, he or she executed it as the result of the undue influence of another person.) The case also discusses what Tennessee lawyers refer to as the “13th Juror Rule.”
Here are the facts of the case:
• Bessie Thornton died at age 89
• Ms. Thornton had one child, a son named Clinton Thornton
• Ms. Thornton was not survived by a spouse or any children besides Clinton
• Ms. Thornton had a next door neighbor named Nan Kimbro
• Ms. Thornton executed a will on January 15, 2002 leaving virtually all of her assets to Ms. Kimbro and nothing to her son, Clinton
• Ms. Kimbro and Ms. Thornton became friends in 1998 (about four years before the will was executed)
• Ms. Kimbro visited Ms. Thornton, took her to hair appointments and helped her care for dogs
• In 2001, Clinton Thornton was living with his mother, Ms. Thornton, but moved out after Ms. Thornton became upset with him
• After Clinton moved out, Ms. Kimbro assumed a larger role in helping and caring for Ms. Thornton by taking her to doctor’s appointments, getting her mail, and paying her bills
• In 2002, Ms. Kimbro arranged for Ms. Thornton to see a lawyer with whom Ms. Thornton had no prior relationship, but who had previously represented Ms. Kimbro in preparing her will
• Ms. Kimbro went with Ms. Thornton to the first meeting with the lawyer, but not the second meeting at which Ms. Thornton signed her will
• Ms. Kimbro paid the lawyer’s fees for the preparation of Ms. Thornton’s will
• The lawyer who prepared Ms. Thornton’s will testified, at trial, that she appeared to be competent and not under any undue influence at the time the will was executed
• Ms. Thornton’s will was stored in Ms. Kimbro’s safe deposit box, and Ms. Thornton’s family was not aware of the will until after Ms. Thornton passed away and it was offered for probate by Ms. Kimbro
The jury in the case found that Ms. Thornton was competent to execute the will, and that Ms. Kimbro had a confidential relationship with Ms. Thornton, but that Ms. Kimbro had not exercised undue influence over Mr. Thornton. The trial judge disagreed with the jury, and set aside the jury’s verdict as trial judges are allowed to do in Tennessee if, after weighing the evidence, the trial judge is dissatisfied with the jury’s verdict (the “13th Juror Rule”).
The trial judge was dissatisfied with the jury’s verdict because he found that there were numerous suspicious circumstances surrounding the will of Ms. Thornton: Ms. Thornton’s deteriorating physical and mental condition; Ms. Thornton’s disinheriting her son; the use of Ms. Kimbro’s lawyer to prepare Ms. Thornton’s will; and the fact that Ms. Thornton’s will was kept secret.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the trial judge to set aside the jury’s verdict. In doing so, the court of appeals reviewed some basic will contest law worth noting:
• A person executing a will must know and understand his or her act; what property he or she possesses; and the manner in which he or she has elected to distribute the property
• Executing a will, under Tennessee law, does not require the same level of mental capacity as required to engage in business transactions
• Lay witnesses may testify in will contest cases, under certain circumstances, as to the soundness of mind of the testator or testatrix (person making the will)