Tennessee will contest cases, especially will contests where the basis for trying to set aside the will is undue influence, are often all about suspicious circumstances. As Tennessee courts have observed for years, in many cases (I believe most), the only way to prove undue influence is by circumstantial evidence. What Tennessee courts have declared are “suspicious circumstances” are just that — circumstantial evidence of undue influence.
A recent undue influence case exemplifies how a combination of suspicious circumstances can result in the setting aside of a Will even when there was no single piece of evidence of undue influence that was, in and of itself, particularly compelling. This case is important to understand because it is, in my experience, pretty infrequent to have an undue influence case where there is anything close to “smoking gun” evidence of undue influence. Undue influencers are generally cunning, nontransparent and, often, keep the person whom they are influencing so isolated from others that there is little or no direct evidence of their actions.
A combination of suspicious circumstances surrounding the Will of a father (“Father”) who disinherited his daughters and left everything to his son (“Son”) caused a Tennessee trial court to set aside that Will. The ruling of the trial court was affirmed in all respects by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, so I will focus on what facts where before the trial court to cause it to set aside the Will based on the undue influence of the Son.
Here are the suspicious circumstances and facts that came out at trial and resulted in the verdict setting aside the Will for undue influence:
- In December of 2007, at the age of 89, Father executed the Will leaving virtually all of his assets to Son and only $1,000 apiece to his daughters
- At the time Father executed the Will, he had a number of serious health problems
- Father died about 14 months after signing the Will
- Although Son had been given the Will to keep, it was not disclosed to Daughters by Son until after Father passed away
- There was evidence that Father was illiterate
- Prior to executing the Will, Father had, on more than one occasion, expressed that he wanted his children to share equally in his assets
- Son had a confidential relationship with Father as he cared for him extensively, and admitted that Father relied on him and trusted him
- Son was actively involved in finding the lawyer who drafted the Will and transporting Father to that lawyer’s office
- Son arranged for the two witnesses who witnessed the Will, and those witnesses had as much, or more, connection and relationship with Son than with Father
- A witness heard Son tell Father that he had to leave Daughters something and should leave them $1,000, and Father did just that
- Son, for the first time at trial, offered testimony about what Father told him on his deathbed about his intentions for Daughters, but, when asked a question that would have elicited that information in his deposition, Son had not given it
The case is In re Estate of Doyle I. Dukes (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015). The facts of the case and the outcome, which was dependent on those facts, proves how the discovery process and the trial process shed light from which the truth often emerges.