Tennessee Appeals Court Upholds Validity of Will in Challenge Based on Undue Influence

A will contest is a formal objection to a will’s validity, and it can be based on a number of legal arguments. In In re Estate of Davis (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 14, 2016), the Tennessee Court of Appeals reviewed a case in which a will was challenged based on allegations of undue influence. In In re Estate of Davis, the decedent was survived by his two daughters and wife, although their pending divorce had not yet been granted at the time of his death. Shortly before he died, the decedent executed a will that attempted to disinherit his wife and daughters, and instead divide his property among five other relatives, including his mother, who was also his power of attorney.

The decedent’s daughters and wife challenged the will during probate, alleging that the will was the product of the undue influence of the decedent’s mother. The probate court found that although a presumption of undue influence existed based on the confidential relationship between the decedent and his power of attorney, it was rebutted by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent received independent legal advice. Accordingly, the will was upheld. The plaintiffs subsequently appealed that decision to the court of appeals.

In a will contest, a properly executed will may be challenged on a theory that the decedent’s mind was not sufficiently sound to enable him or her to know and understand the effect and consequence of making the will at the time the will was executed. A will may also be challenged on the basis that the decedent was subject to the undue influence of another in executing the will. In Tennessee, when there is a confidential relationship, followed by a transaction wherein the dominant party receives a benefit from the other party, a presumption of undue influence arises, which may be rebutted only by clear and convincing evidence of the fairness of the transaction.

A confidential relationship is a relationship in which one person has dominion and control over another. The party claiming the existence of a confidential relationship bears the burden of proof. Once a confidential relationship has been shown and a presumption of undue influence arises, the dominant party may show that the weaker party received independent advice before engaging in the transaction that benefited the dominant party.

In In re Estate of Davis, the appeals court found that substantial evidence in the record supported the probate court’s finding of a confidential relationship between the decedent and his mother, including the fact that she was his power of attorney and health care agent, that the decedent was living in her home, and that she helped him physically and with his medical needs. However, the appeals court affirmed the finding of the probate court that the will was not procured by undue influence, since the decedent received independent legal advice, and there was witness testimony that the decedent informed the attorney of his wishes in drafting the will, in addition to other evidence. The will was therefore ruled valid by the court.

An experienced trusts and estates attorney can assist clients in the preparation and settlement of an estate, as well as prepare for any potential issues that may arise during probate. At the Nashville firm of MHPS, our skilled attorneys provide guidance to individuals in a variety of legal matters, including probate litigation, personal injury lawsuits, and family law issues. To consult with a legal professional regarding your estate planning needs, call (615) 800-7096 or contact us online.

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