Tennessee Appeals Court Addresses Confidential Relationships and Undue Influence in Estate Case

If a person has exerted undue influence over a decedent in matters concerning his or her estate planning, it may be appropriate to overturn a bequest in some instances.  In an opinion released on March 14, 2017, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee reviewed a claim of undue influence following the decedent’s death.  The nieces of the decedent filed the complaint, contesting the validity of a quitclaim deed and the decedent’s will on the ground that they were results of undue influence exerted upon the decedent by her stepson and his wife.  After a jury found the documents to be valid, the plaintiffs brought the current appeal.

The decedent in the case died in 2012.  After the decedent’s death, a will that she executed in 1985 was submitted for probate.  However, the defendants subsequently provided a document dated in 2010, purporting to be the decedent’s will.  In the 2010 will, the decedent revoked all prior wills, disinherited the plaintiffs, and named the stepson as the sole beneficiary.  They also submitted a 2011 codicil that designated the stepson’s wife as the sole beneficiary in the event that her husband predeceased the decedent.  Lastly, the defendants presented a 2010 quitclaim deed conveying the decedent’s real property to herself, her stepson, and his wife as joint tenants with right of survivorship.

The defendants had moved into the house next door to the decedent in 1985.  After the decedent suffered a stroke in 2005, the defendants began caring for her.  In 2010, the decedent executed a document designating the defendants as her powers of attorney.  Witnesses testified that the 2010 will was read aloud to the decedent, and she seemed to be mentally sharp, although she was in a wheelchair, and her stepson steadied her arm so that she could sign.

In Tennessee, for the doctrine of undue influence to apply, there must be a confidential relationship in which the beneficiary is in a position to exercise undue influence over the mind and will of the testator.  Generally, confidential relationships originate from legal relationships, such as a grant of power of attorney, as well as family and other relationships.  A presumption of undue influence arises when there is a confidential relationship followed by a transaction in which the beneficiary receives a benefit from the testator.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that they were entitled to a presumption of undue influence because the defendants’ powers of attorney created a per se confidential relationship, and they benefited from the 2010 will and deed.  The appeals court disagreed, explaining that an unexercised power of attorney, as was the case here, does not establish the proof of dominion and control necessary for a confidential relationship.  Furthermore, the court noted that although the decedent depended on the defendants to bathe her, feed her, and take her to doctor’s appointments, multiple witnesses testified that the decedent could not be talked into something she did not want to do, and she was aware of what was happening when she executed the documents at issue.  Accordingly, the court upheld the validity of the 2010 will and deed.

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