In a Will Contest, Tennessee Appeals Court Requires That All Witnesses to the Signing of the Will Must Testify

The Tennessee laws regarding wills and estates can be complicated, especially given the types of disputes that can arise after an individual passes away. The potential for will challenges can be reduced if a qualified estate attorney is retained to provide estate planning needs. This was not the case in a recent Court of Appeals case that involved ex-spouses, hand-written will changes, and missing witnesses.

In The Matter of the Estate of Dennis R. Woolverton, the trial court heard testimony in a will contest from only two of the three witnesses to a holographic, or handwritten, will. The underlying facts of the case were not disputed. The decedent died, unmarried, at the age of 51. While the decedent had been married, he and his former wife had obtained a divorce several years before his death in 2012. The decedent’s only living family member, his sister, believed that he died without a will and accordingly filed a probate matter.

In a dramatic turn of events, the decedent’s ex-wife then intervened in the matter, claiming she was the beneficiary of the decedent’s estate and assets. She produced a copy of a document she claimed was the last will and testament of her ex-husband. In the document, the decedent allegedly acknowledged that he was no longer married to his former wife, but wished for her to inherit all of his property, including monetary assets and retirement funds. In the purported will, he specifically stated that he did not want his sister or her family present at his funeral.

The document was allegedly signed by the decedent and three witnesses. It was also notarized and stamped by a notary public.

In response to the ex-wife’s allegations, the decedent’s sister initiated legal proceedings in order to challenge the validity of the document. The sister claimed that the will was fraudulently procured, was not properly witnessed, and contained a forged signature. She also claimed that her brother would have used an attorney to execute a will. At a court hearing on the validity of the will, the ex-wife produced two of the three signature witnesses, as well as the notary public. Each of the individuals testified that they witnessed the signing of the will by the decedent.

Since the ex-wife also testified that she had reconciled with her former spouse, and since two witnesses testified that they saw the decedent sign the document, the trial court held that the will was valid. The sister appealed the case.

The appeals court noted that Tennessee statutes regarding will execution require strict compliance. Specifically, one of the applicable statutes states that when a will is contested, it must be proved by all the living witnesses, if they are to be found. Since only two of the three witnesses to the will in question testified, the decedent’s sister argued that the requirements of the law had not been met. The Court agreed with the sister. While only two witnesses are required to execute a will in Tennessee, if there were additional witnesses, they must all be produced in the event of a will contest. As such, the appeals court vacated the trial court’s decision and remanded it for proceedings consistent with the law.

If you or someone you know has dealt with complications arising from estate planning, will disputes, or a similar issue, contact the Nashville estate planning attorneys at MHPS. Our attorneys stay up to date with the most recent legal developments regarding wills and estates and can provide advice on how to prevent future disputes. To speak with an attorney, contact us by emailing, or call (615) 800-7096.

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