Tennessee Appeals Court Addresses the Issue of Standing in Probate Matter

In order to initiate probate proceedings and bring a claim against an estate, the party must have standing in the court where the motion is filed. A recent appeal, In re Estate of James Kemmler Rogers (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 17, 2016), illustrates the complications that may arise when the decedent resided and conducted business in two states before his death. When a purported creditor of the decedent filed a petition to open probate in Tennessee, the decedent’s surviving children objected. Without ruling on whether the petitioner had standing, the trial court denied probate. The petitioner then requested review by the appeals court.

In Rogers, the decedent was employed in the cattle business and moved quite frequently. In 2007, he resided on a portion of the appellant’s farm in Tennessee, where, in lieu of rent, the parties agreed the decedent would perform handyman duties. In 2012, after being injured in a car accident, the decedent moved back to California to be near his family. At the time of his death, the decedent did not own property, vote, or maintain any services in Tennessee, and his estate was admitted to probate in California. However, the appellant also filed a petition to probate the estate in Tennessee, alleging that she was a creditor of the estate. Finding that the decedent resided in and was domiciled in California at the time of his death, the trial court found there was no basis for primary or ancillary probate in Tennessee.

Courts use the doctrine of standing to determine whether a litigant is entitled to pursue judicial relief as to a particular issue or cause of action. The proper focus of a determination of standing is a party’s right to bring a cause of action, and the likelihood of success on the merits does not factor into such an inquiry. To establish constitutional standing, as was the issue in Rogers, a party must show a distinct and palpable injury, a causal connection between the alleged injury and the challenged conduct, and evidence that the injury is capable of being redressed by a favorable decision of the court.

In Rogers, despite the fact that the trial court’s ruling indicated problems with the petitioner’s lack of standing, there was no specific finding of such. The appeals court reasoned that, since the petition for primary or ancillary probate turned on the question of whether the appellant had standing to bring such a petition, and the trial court did not determine that issue, the claims had not been fully adjudicated. As a result, the appeals court was compelled to dismiss the appeal for lack of a final judgment, and it remanded the case back to the trial court for a decision on the matter of standing.

An experienced probate attorney can represent individuals or an estate grappling with will contests and other disputes during probate administration. The Nashville trusts and estates lawyers at MHPS understand that these issues can be sensitive and emotional, and they can provide comprehensive legal advice as they guide you through the process. If you are seeking assistance regarding an estate, personal injury, or family law matter, contact MHPS by phone at (615) 800-7096 or online and schedule a consultation with one of our legal professionals.

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