The law of undue influence in Tennessee can be quite a bit to try to get one’s head around considering the numerous different factual situations in which undue influence cases arise and considering the numerous “suspicious circumstances” that Tennessee courts have instructed judges and juries to use in making their decisions. In addition to those considerations, there are other layers to any undue influence case whether the case involves a will contest, irrevocable trust, change of beneficiary or joint account. Those layers include the determination of whether a confidential relationship was present and whether the defendant rebutted the presumption of undue influence (if the presumption applied).
For Tennessee lawyers who handle undue influence cases and will contests (or clients involved in such cases), the case of In Re Estate of Schisler, a 2009 published opinion of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, is a good place to start in trying to understand how Tennessee undue influence law works. In that case, two children of the deceased (“Defendant Children”) were sued by their four siblings. When she was about 79 years old, the mother of all of the children (“Mother”) moved from Maryland, where she had lived on a farm and raised all of her children, to Tennessee. Mother moved to Tennessee because her health was deteriorating. In Tennessee, she eventually moved in with one of the Defendant Children, a daughter.
In November of 2005, and about 10 months after having suffered a mini-stroke, Mother went with one of her daughters (one of the Defendant Children), with whom she was living in Tennessee, to a lawyer in Tennessee. On November 15, 2005, Mother returned to the lawyer’s office in Tennessee with the same daughter and made a new will. In the new will, Mother left only her one-fifth interest in a parcel of property she owned to all six children. Mother bequeathed the remainder of her assets to the two Defendant Children.
After Mother passed away in 2006, the other children of Mother filed a will contest in which they alleged that the new will which was done in 2005 was invalid because it was obtained as the result of the undue influence of the Defendant Children. The jury found that there was a confidential relationship between Defendant Children and that the new will was the result of the undue influence of Defendant Children. Defendant Children appealed and argued that the jury’s verdict should be set aside.
Under Tennessee law, the Court of Appeals could only reverse the verdict of the jury if no material evidence in the record supported the verdict. The court found that there was material evidence to support the jury’s verdict. As to the daughter who was a defendant, the court noted that Mother depended upon her to feed her, to care for her, to house her and to transport her. (If those facts are established in any Tennessee will contest case, I doubt that any judge or jury would not find the existence of a confidential relationship).
The proof of a confidential relationship between the son, who was one of the two Defendant Children, and Mother was much less compelling. That son do not live with, care for, or transport Mother. In fact, he remained in Maryland on the family farm. So, how was it that the court of appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict that he also had a confidential relationship with Mother? It opined that the proof showed that Mother was financially dependent on that son. How so? That son and Mother had, since 1982, had a joint account into which all of Mother’s social security benefits and income from the family farm were deposited. The son’s financial control of that account was enough evidence to support the jury’s determination that the son had a confidential relationship with Mother.
As for the jury’s decision that there had been undue influence, the appeals court affirmed it because a number of the suspicious circumstances were present including: (1) there was material evidence that Mother’s mental and physical health had deteriorated; (2) both Defendant Children had played a role in procuring the new will; (3) both of Defendant Children accompanied mother to the office of a lawyer in Maryland prior to the execution of the new will in 2005 at which time Mother made changes to her estate plan which benefitted Defendant Children; and (4) both Defendant Children benefitted from the new will.