Fairly frequently, we receive calls from people inquiring about their chances of having a will invalidated. Often, those persons believe that a will contest is in order because another relative, or person close to the deceased, unfairly influenced the terms of the will.
A recent Tennessee case, which was decided by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, is an informative read for anyone interested in educating himself or herself about the basics of Tennessee law regarding will contests and undue influence. Keep in mind that, if you are looking for guidance about your possible will contest case, you should not count on finding a definite answer as to the outcome of your specific case. In Tennessee, each will contest case involving a challenge to a will on the grounds of undue influence will be decided on its own unique facts.
In the recent case mentioned above, the trial court’s decision that a will should be invalidated on the grounds of undue influence was affirmed by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. Here are the basic facts of the case:
• The person who made the will (called the “testator”), a Ruth Nelson, died at age 97 in October of 2007
• At the time of her death, Ruth Nelson was survived by her daughter (“Daughter”) and three grandsons
• In 2004, Ruth Nelson executed a will (the “2004 Will”)
• Daughter was not a primary beneficiary of the 2004 Will
• In 2005, Ruth Nelson executed another will (the “2005 Will”)
• The Daughter was the primary beneficiary in the 2005 Will
• The Daughter arranged her mother’s, Ruth Nelson’s, appointment with the lawyer who drafted the 2005 Will
• On both of Ruth Nelson’s visits to the office of the lawyer who drafted the 2005 Will, Daughter accompanied her
• After the 2004 Will was executed, it was revealed to relatives and to Ruth Nelson’s conservator
• After the 2005 Will was executed, no relatives, other than Daughter, were notified of it, nor was Ruth Nelson’s conservator notified of it
• Ruth Nelson was found by the trial court to be “in a state of both physical and mental deterioration” at the time of the execution of the 2005 Will
In its analysis of the case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals began with a basic premise of Tennessee law: The presence of undue influence is most often proven by “the existence of suspicious circumstances warranting the conclusion that the will was not the testator’s free and independent act.” The court then outlined some of the most common suspicious circumstances:
• Poor mental and physical condition of the testator
• The existence of a “confidential relationship” between the testator and beneficiary
• The beneficiary had a key role in procuring the will at issue
• Secrecy surrounding the existence of the will
• The testator was of advanced age
• The testator could not read or was blind
• Discrepancies between the terms of the will and the intentions expressed by the testator to others
In finding that Ruth Nelson’s 2005 Will was the result of undue influence exerted by Daughter, the trial court (the Probate Court for Davidson County, Nashville, Tennessee) found that the intentions expressed in the 2005 Will were at odds with previously expressed intentions of Ruth Nelson about how her assets should be distributed. It also found that a confidential relationship existed between Ruth Nelson and Daughter. That finding was not based merely on the familial relationship of Daughter and Ruth Nelson, but on the fact that Daughter was the only relative who lived near Ruth Nelson, and Ruth Nelson depended on Daughter for transportation.
The above case is an example of a will contest and undue influence case with relatively clear and compelling facts supporting the claim of undue influence. For an informative case in which the court did not find undue influence, take a look at Banc of America Investment Services, Inc. v. Davis, et. al., a 2009 Tennessee Court of Appeals case involving the proceeds of an Individual Retirement Account (“IRA”).