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Inconsistency Between Terms of Will and Payable on Death Designations Not Enough to Prove Undue Influence

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.

The Court of Appeals rejected this argument based on the facts before it. Besides pointing out that there was no evidence that Frank was under the dominion and control of Fields, it relied on the testimony of Frank’s long-time lawyer.  Frank’s lawyer testified that, when Frank executed his last will, he would have explained to him that any payable on death or joint accounts would pass outside of his will.  At least one bank officer also testified that Frank, though blind, was competent to understand the transactions he made.

Tennessee undue influence cases have unique facts, although many share broad similarities. This case proves that a mere incongruity between the terms of a will and payable on death or other account designations is not enough, standing alone, to win an undue influence case.

This post was written by attorney J. Ross Pepper.