In a recent will contest case, both the trial court and the Court of Appeals of Tennessee let it be known that the current state of the law in Tennessee regarding who has standing to bring a will contest case can result in a major injustice. Both courts also invited the Supreme Court of Tennessee to change the law.
Here is what happened in the case, In re Estate of J. Don Brock:
- Don Brock had five adopted children (“Contestants”)
- Mr. Brock also had a wife
- Mr. Brock executed a will in 2013
- The 2013 Will disinherited the Contestants, and left the assets of the estate (“Estate”) to Mr. Brock’s wife
- Mr. Brock died
- The 2013 Will was submitted to probate
- The Contestants filed a notice of will contest based on undue influence, fraud, lack of testamentary capacity, and improper execution
- The Chancery Court entered an agreed order that the Contestants had standing to challenge the 2013 Will and transferred the case to the Circuit Court for the will contest trial
- The Estate filed a motion to transfer the case back to Chancery Court on the basis that the Contestants did not have standing to challenge the 2013 Will
- The grounds for the Estate’s position was that there was a newly discovered 2012 Will which also disinherited each of the Contestants
- The Circuit Court granted the motion of the Estate. It determined that the Contestants did not have standing because, even if the 2013 Will was set aside, the Contestants would still receive nothing because of the 2012 Will
- The Contestants then filed a motion to amend their notice to contest, not only the 2013 Will, but also, the 2012 Will (as well as some wills before 2012)
- Under the wills executed before the 2012 Will, some of the Contestants would be entitled to recover if both the 2013 Will and the 2012 Will were found to be invalid. If all of the wills before the 2012 Will were held to be invalid, all of the Contestants would recover
- Applying existing Tennessee law, the Chancery Court determined that the Contestants did not have standing to bring a will contest case
So, what Tennessee law compelled the ruling of the Chancery Court which slammed shut the courthouse doors to the Contestants? How could the ruling be fair given the possibility that the Contestants might be able to prove that both the 2012 Will and the 2013 Will were invalid, in which event, it was undisputed that they would be entitled to assets of their father’s estate? The first question is easy to answer. I do not have an answer to the second question (just like the trial court and appellate court did not).
The answer to the first question is that existing law from the Supreme Court of Tennessee required the result. Under that law, if the 2012 Will was “facially valid,” then the Contestants could not have standing. Of course, that is an absurd and unfair rule because it means that, if someone, through undue influence, obtains two consecutive wills (Will 3 and, before that, Will 2), which both leave nothing to an heir-at-law or someone named in an even prior will (Will 1), and Will 2 is “facially valid,” then they are home free.
For Tennessee will contest lawyers, we can only hope that the Contestants appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Tennessee and that it takes up the invitation of the trial court and court of appeals to change this unfair rule.