Strict Compliance with Statutory Requirements for Wills Reaffirmed by Supreme Court of Tennessee

The Supreme Court of Tennessee, in a recent case, reversed a decision of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in which the appeals court had relaxed one of the requirements for a valid will and had upheld the validity of a will which did not strictly comply with a rule laid down by the Tennessee legislature for creating a legally valid Tennessee will. This will contest case resulted in an important decision for Tennessee lawyers who handle will contest cases.

A little historical background about Tennessee will law is helpful. In 1941, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted, in Tennessee, the provisions of the “Execution of Wills Act.” The purpose of the Act was to provide uniform standards for the execution of wills. One of the requirements of the Act, which is codified at T.C.A. §32-1-104, is that a will, other than a holographic will (handwritten) or nuncupative will (unique and very rare), must be signed by the testator (the person making the will).

The facts of the case are pretty simple. The Decedent’s daughter offered a will (the “Will”) for probate. The Will was two pages. The Decedent had initialed the first page of the Will, but had not signed it. Attached to the Will was a separate one page document which was titled “Self-Proved Will Affidavit.” The Decedent and the witnesses all signed the Affidavit. Some nieces and nephews of the Decedent filed a will contest case wherein they alleged that the Will was not valid because the Decedent had not signed the Will.

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee found that the fact that the Decedent had not signed the Will did not make the Will invalid because the Decedent had signed the Affidavit attached to the Will, and had intended for his signature on the Affidavit to be on the Will. The Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the appeals court. It held that the failure of the Decedent to sign the Will was fatal to the validity of the Will.

The Supreme Court pointed out, in the opinion, that Tennessee courts, since 1941, had consistently required strict compliance with the provisions of T.C.A. §32-1-104. It cited and referred to several cases where strict compliance had resulted in the invalidity of wills, including:
• A will contest case where the attesting witnesses to a will failed to sign in each others’ presence
• A will contest case where the testatrix had failed to sign the will at the same time and in the presence of the witnesses
• A will contest case where the witnesses only initialed the will
The Supreme Court, in reaching its decision, rejected the assertion that the affidavit attached to the Will was part of the Will or anything other than a completely separate instrument from the Will.

The Supreme Court of Tennessee made a couple of collateral points worth noting. It expressly stated that its decision should not be interpreted as requiring a testator to sign each page of a will that is written on several pieces of paper. It also expressly stated that its holding should not be construed as requiring a testator to sign in a particular location on the will. For those lawyers and law firms who handle will contest cases, the opinion discussed in this blog should highlight the importance of scrupulously reviewing a will for compliance with the applicable Tennessee statute, T.C.A. §32-1-104.

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