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Significant New Case on Confidential Relationships in Tennessee Will Contest Cases

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee, in a recently decided will contest case, In re Estate of Ida Lucille Land, made what appears to be some new law on what circumstances can establish a confidential relationship between the person who made the Will and the person or persons alleged to have procured the Will through undue influence.  Here are the basic facts of the case:

  • Ida Land (“Mrs. Land”) died at age 99 in August of 2015
  • At the time of her death, Mrs. Land had no surviving spouse or children, but did have a surviving niece
  • The surviving niece’s name was Ms. Allen
  • In about 1986, Mrs. Land married a Mr. Land, who did have children by a different marriage (“Mr. Land’s Children”)
  • Mr. Land had a sister named Pauline Hill
  • Pauline Hill was married to Kenneth Hill
  • Mr. Land’s Children where, therefore, the Hills’ nieces and nephews
  • Prior to her death, Mrs. Land had expressed to her niece, Ms. Allen, that she did not want Mr. Land’s Children to receive any of her assets
  • There was compelling proof that not only did Mrs. Land and Ms. Allen have a long-standing and loving relationship for many years, but also, that, before Mr. Land’s Children intervened, Ms. Allen, for many years, spent substantial amounts of time caring for Mrs. Land on a regular and unselfish basis
  • Around 2011, Mr. Land’s Children began intervening in the relationship between Ms. Allen and Mrs. Land and were able to keep Ms. Allen away from Mrs. Land for much of the time
  • In May of 2011, Mrs. Land executed the Will which was challenged
  • It was undisputed that the Will was done by a lawyer who had a prior relationship with one of Mr. Land’s Children
  • It was undisputed that Mrs. Hill and Mr. Land’s Children took Mrs. Land to the lawyer who prepared the Will
  • Kenneth Hill was named as Executor of the Will
  • The Will left Mrs. Land’s entire estate to Mr. Land’s Children

 

At the conclusion of the proof, the trial court instructed the jury to answer three questions:

“1.         Did Judy Allen, by a preponderance of the evidence, prove that there was undue influence arising   from a confidential relationship between Kenneth Hill and Pauline Hill and Mrs. Land?

  1. Did Judy Allen, by a preponderance of the evidence, prove that Kenneth Hill and Pauline Hill unduly profited from the Will?
  2. Did Kenneth Hill and Pauline Hill, by clear and convincing evidence, prove that the transaction was fair?”

 

The jury answered “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the third.

On appeal, the Executor argued that the trial court erred by holding that the fact that he was named as Executor created a confidential relationship between himself and Mrs. Land. Under Tennessee law, the finding of a confidential relationship is critical, and, in my experience, frequently outcome determinative.  That is so because, where there is a confidential relationship followed by a transaction which benefits the one standing in a confidential relationship to the one who gave the benefit, the one who is benefitted must then prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the transaction was fair.  While Tennessee courts speak of a “transaction,” keep in mind that the execution of a Will, and its terms, fall in the category of a “transaction.”

On appeal, the Executor argued that the presumption of undue influence should not have applied to him and his wife because they received no direct, pecuniary benefit from the Will. (That is a pretty logical and lawyerly argument to make.) The Court of Appeals held that “the benefit does not have to go directly to the dominant party so long as the benefit is to the advantage of the dominant party.”  Because Mrs. Land’s Will provided direct financial benefits to the nieces and nephews of the Hills, the court held that the presumption applied.

Every Tennessee will contest lawyer should be mindful of this case. The scenario in this case is very likely to arise again.