What if the person who made a will misunderstood facts that existed at the time the will was made? What if the person had been lied to at the time he or she made the will? In Tennessee, a will may be set aside for mistake or for fraud. There is limited case law in Tennessee dealing with the subjects of mistake and fraud in the making of wills, but what we do have is enough to provide lawyers who handle will contest cases with the basic rules that will apply in will contest cases involving fraud and mistake.
It is very difficult to set aside a will in Tennessee on the grounds that the maker of the will was mistaken about some fact when he or she made the will. Two Tennessee will contest cases illustrate that point well.
In Anderson v. Anderson, a 1967 decision of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, the father and the maker of the will (the “testator”) had a wife and two sons. In the will, the father left a 35 acre farm to one of his sons. It was not disputed that, at the time he made the will, the father mistakenly believed that he could leave the farm to his son. The father, however, owned the farm as tenants by the entireties with his wife. That being the case, when the father died, the 35 acre farm passed to his wife and could not be inherited by the son to whom he had bequeathed it in his will.
The son in the Anderson case filed a will contest. The Supreme Court acknowledged that the father had made a mistake and that, if it did not set aside the will, there would be a harsh result and an inequitable distribution of the father’s estate. Nevertheless, it held that the will should not be invalidated.
The Court ruled that it would only be proper to invalidate the will if there was proof that, if the father would have known of his mistake, he would have made a different disposition. Moreover, the Court held that the proof that the father would have made a different disposition if he had known of his mistake must come from the written will itself. So, to win his will contest case, the son would have had to be able to point to words in the will signed by his father which expressed that he, the father, would have made a different disposition to his son if he was mistaken about his ownership of the 35 acre farm or his ability to bequeath it to his son at his death.
What was the rationale that caused the Court in Anderson to adopt a rule that, by its own admission, resulted in harsh and inequitable consequences for the son? It was the proverbial “can of worms” rationale: The Court believed that, if persons were allowed to set aside wills by arguing about what the makers of wills understood or knew about their property or did not understand or know about it, then “half the wills in the country” would be upset. The rationale employed by the Anderson court, at least under the facts of that case, is fallacious and its reasoning should be re-visited in the future when a case with similar facts presents itself. A case which applied the rationale of the Anderson case and reached a somewhat similar result is Union Planters Nat. Bank of Memphis v. Inman (Tenn. Ct. App. 1979).
Where a testator makes a will based on fraudulent statements of others, as opposed to simply an erroneous belief held by the testator, it is much easier to set aside a will under Tennessee law. In Puckett v. Krida (Tenn. Ct. App. 1994), two caretakers of an elderly woman convinced her that her relatives were trying to put her in a nursing home and were wasting her money. Being put in a nursing home was one of the woman’s greatest fears. The elderly woman changed her will to name the caretakers as beneficiaries to the exclusion of her other relatives.
The trial court in the Puckett case set aside the will on the basis of fraud and undue influence. The Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the trial court. In the decision, the court made a couple of points well worth noting. First, while undue influence and fraud are similar, a will can be set aside for fraud even where the “free agency” of the testator was not impaired at the time the will was made. Second, the court indicated that the same burden shifting that takes place in undue influence cases is applicable where it is alleged that a will should be set aside for fraud: “Once the existence of a confidential relationship and suspicious circumstances are proven, undue influence or fraud is presumed.”