In Tennessee will contest cases where wills are challenged on the basis of undue influence, outcomes are often difficult to predict and depend on the unique facts of each case. A recent Tennessee case proves that point. As the Court of Appeals of Tennessee noted when it affirmed the decision of the jury that there was no undue influence, there was evidence in the case to support that the will was the result of undue influence, but there was also evidence to support that it was not.
The proof at trial showed:
- The maker of the will, a Elizabeth Jones (“Decedent”), was about 93 years old in 2010 when she changed a will she had made in 1985
- In her 1985 will, the Decedent had left her assets, except for certain real property, to her nieces (who were the parties challenging the 2010 will)
- In the 1985 will, the Decedent had left the real estate in question to her stepson
- In her 2010 will, the Decedent left all of her assets to her stepson and disinherited her nieces
- Stepson began living with the Decedent when he was 5 years old, and then moved next door to her with his wife in 1985
- Decedent suffered a stroke in 1985, but her doctor testified that she was mentally competent and had no mental deficits from the stroke at the time Decedent executed her 2010 will
- Stepson admitted that he assisted Decedent by cashing her checks, and taking her to doctors appointments
- Stepson had a gate installed at Decedent’s house which he claimed he did to keep strangers from coming to her home when she was alone
- A family friend testified that the Decedent was “always sharp-minded”
- Another friend of Decedent testified that Decedent’s home smelled of urine and caused her to call the Tennessee Department of Human Services (“Department”)
- An employee of the Department visited with Decedent and concluded that she was not being neglected
- Another friend of the Decedent testified that Decedent had expressed to him that she wanted to make a new will and that, thereafter, he helped her obtain the will she executed in 2010 from Legal Zoom
- The friend who helped Decedent with the 2010 will testified that, although she was frail, Decedent was still competent
The jury determined that there was no undue influence and upheld the validity of the 2010 will. The nieces appealed. The court of appeals affirmed the jury verdict. On the facts of this case, and considering the deference given to jury verdicts on appeal, that outcome was a foregone conclusion, in my opinion.
Setting aside a jury verdict in this will contest case would have required the court of appeals to conclude that there was no material evidence to support the jury’s verdict.
This case proves that, unless the trial judge makes some reversible error in conducting the trial, which did not happen in this case, if you lose an undue influence case before a jury, your chances on appeal are probably very slim.