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Recent Will Contest And Undue Influence Case Involving Caretakers: Tennessee Court of Appeals Holds No Claim Because No Confidential Relationship

In what might be described as a “battle of the caretakers” undue influence and will contest case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals decided in favor of the proponents (and beneficiaries) of the will, and against the relatives who claimed that the will was the result of undue influence. What makes the case unique is that the undue influence was allegedly exerted, not by the beneficiaries of the will at issue, but by caretakers who did not benefit one bit from the will.
The case was brought by a Nephew of the Deceased (who made the will), and the Nephew’s Wife. To summarize their claim, the Nephew and his Wife alleged that caretakers for the Decedent so poisoned the Decedent’s relationship with them that the Decedent changed his will.
Here are more facts of the case:
• When the Decedent died on April 22, 2009, he left a Will dated December 18, 2007 (the “2007 Will”)
• Prior to executing the 2007 Will, the Decedent had executed a will in 2005 pursuant to which Nephew received 80% of the Decedent’s estate and Nephew’s Wife received 20%
• In the 2007 Will, Nephew’s Wife received nothing and Nephew received only a life estate in a farm
• The amount of the Estate was over $5 million
• Nephew and his Wife contended that they were like the Decedent’s children; they took care of him when no other relatives would (including the beneficiaries of the 2007 Will); and that the Decedent’s true will was for them to inherit his estate
• Nephew and his Wife alleged that several caretakers of Decedent unduly influenced him and that, because of that undue influence, he made the 2007 Will
• Nephew and his Wife alleged that the caretakers said things about them that were not true, and took away the Decedent’s independence and privacy
• To support their position, Nephew and his Wife relied on three affidavits of caretakers who had worked in the Decedent’s home (who were not the caretakers who allegedly unduly influenced the Decedent)
• Although the particulars of the conduct allegedly engaged in by the caretakers against whom the other caretakers testified is fairly extensive, the caretakers who testified for the Nephew and his Wife stated, in essence, that the other caretakers developed inappropriate emotional relationships with the Decedent
• To support their position, the proponents of the 2007 Will submitted the testimony of financial advisors and lawyers who testified to the competence and independence of the Decedent up until his death
• The court seemed to place particular weight on a couple of facts that distinguish this case from many other undue influence cases: (1) The proponents of the 2007 Will were not involved in arranging or procuring that Will; and (2) the Decedent regularly attended meetings of the board of directors of a bank on which he served up until the month of his death
The trial court held that the Nephew and his Wife could not prove undue influence because they could not prove that any confidential relationship existed between the caretakers and the Decedent. The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, and its dismissal of the claims of Nephew and his Wife.
In affirming the trial court, the court of appeals touched on some basic Tennessee undue influence and will contest law. The court pointed out that, under Tennessee law, the burden of proof was on the Nephew and his Wife to prove undue influence. The court also reaffirmed what it had held in 2006 in another case: To prove undue influence in Tennessee, a person must first prove the existence of a confidential relationship.
The court held that, in Tennessee, a will could be set aside based on undue influence exerted by someone other than a beneficiary of the will. The court held, however, that the Nephew and his Wife had not proven that the caretakers exercised such “domination and control” over the Decedent that a confidential relationship existed between them and the Decedent.