In a recent case involving a challenge to an amendment to a revocable trust, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee upheld the trial court’s grant of a directed verdict to the defendants and against the two sons who had challenged the amendment. The case is significant because it demonstrates that basing a challenge to a will or trust exclusively on the argument that the deceased was of advanced age, and, therefore, must have had reduced mental capacity and increased dependence on others, will not carry the day (as it should not). Although the case was not technically a will contest, the principles and law applied were the same as those applied in will contest cases.
Based on the facts set forth in the opinion in the case, the sons who challenged the trust amendment on the grounds of undue influence and lack of mental capacity must have pretty much expected to prove both just by proving that their father was older and that one of their sisters lived with him. They had no medical proof that would support either that their father was lacking mental capacity, or that he was so physically infirm that he was susceptible to his live-in daughter establishing a dominant relationship over him.
Summary judgments and directed verdicts, both of which were granted by the trial court in this case, are pretty rare in will contest cases where undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity are at issue. That they are makes this case worth analyzing and understanding.
Here are the key facts of the case:
- Father had six children comprised of three sons and three daughters
- The opinion, remarkably, does not provide Father’s age, though it is clear he was elderly
- In 2008, Father executed a will and revocable trust
- Father appointed one of his daughters as his personal representative
- In 2010, Father executed an amendment to the trust
- Although the opinion does not state how Father’s assets were to be distributed under the 2010 amendment, it is clear from the opinion that, under that amendment, two sons were bequeathed less than what was bequeathed to some, or all, of the other siblings
- After Father died in 2011, the above two sons (the “Plaintiff Sons”) filed a lawsuit challenging the 2010 amendment on the grounds that Father was unduly influenced to make the amendment and lacked the testamentary capacity to understand the consequences of the amendment
In their complaint, the Plaintiff Sons alleged that:
- Because of his mental and physical condition, Father was unable to care for himself at the time he made the 2010 amendment
- One of Father’s daughters, who lived with Father, had a confidential relationship with Father because she was his primary caretaker
- Father lacked the mental capacity to make the 2010 amendment and was coerced into making it by the other siblings (the “Defendants”)
- That a presumption of undue influence had been raised based on the combination of Father’s diminished mental and physical capacity and because of the confidential relationship with the daughter with whom he lived
The Plaintiff Sons, when faced with a motion for partial summary judgment, filed no medical records which supported the argument that Father had problems with his mental capacity. Consequently, the trial court granted a summary judgment to the Defendants on the issue of lack of testamentary capacity. The trial court determined that issues of fact remained as to whether the daughter with whom Father lived had a confidential relationship with Father. However, at trial, after the close of the proof of the Plaintiff Sons, the trial court entered a directed verdict that the Plaintiff Sons had not presented adequate proof of that confidential relationship, and thus, that the Plaintiff Sons’ case should be dismissed.
The sole issue on appeal was whether the trial court erred by granting the directed verdict that there was inadequate proof of a confidential relationship between the live-in daughter and Father. It is tough for a defendant to obtain a directed verdict, especially in most will contest cases. To receive one, the defendant has to prove that all reasonable persons, based on the proof presented by the plaintiff, would reach the conclusion that the plaintiff’s claim should fail.
The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s grant of the directed verdict. It reasoned that the Plaintiff Sons’ argument that there was sufficient proof of a confidential relationship to survive a directed verdict because Father was old, was physically and mentally infirm, and was dependent on the daughter who lived with him should be rejected as mere argument unsupported by any facts in the record. Notably, in their proof at trial, Plaintiff Sons introduced no medical records or testimony supporting their allegations.
There are a couple of additional observations about this case that are worth being taken note of by Tennessee will contest lawyers. First, as Tennessee courts have said many times, a familial relationship, such as that of Father and the daughter who lived with him, is insufficient, standing alone, to establish a confidential relationship. There must be proof of, not only a relationship of trust, but also, of a person’s ability to assert dominance over the person against whom it is alleged undue influence was asserted. Second, a will contest litigant can never prove undue influence without proving that a confidential relationship existed and was employed in the making, or changing of a will, trust, or other legal document such as a beneficiary designation on a bank account, life insurance policy, or retirement account.