Changes to the law can have a significant effect on the way an estate is administered. In a recent Tennessee estate litigation case involving a will contest, the Court of Appeals determined whether a 2016 amendment to the Tennessee Execution of Wills Act applied to a will that was executed prior to the effective date of the statute. The beneficiary of the decedent’s will argued that it was valid under the new law, while the decedent’s heir-at-law, her father, contended that it was invalid because it did not meet the requirements under the law in effect at the time of her death in 2015.
The decedent in the case executed her Last Will and Testament in June 2015. She signed the bottom of each of the three pages of her will in the presence of two witnesses, and the witnesses signed the attestation affidavit in the presence of the decedent, each other, and a notary public. However, the witnesses failed to sign the will itself. The decedent passed away in September 2015.
In April 2016, Tennessee enacted an amendment providing that wills executed prior to July 1, 2016, are validly executed if the witness signatures are affixed to an affidavit, provided that the signatures are made contemporaneously with the testator’s signature, and the affidavit contains language meeting the requirements of the law. On appeal, the court found that the language of the amendment was straightforward and unambiguous, and it clearly was intended to provide relief for testators like the decedent, who believed they had executed a valid will prior to July 1, 2016, when the two witnesses duly executed the attestation affidavit at the same time as the will contest was executed by the testator, but the witnesses failed to sign the will itself.
The decedent’s father next argued that his right as an heir-at-law to inherit property vested at the time of the decedent’s death and that a subsequent law cannot be applied retrospectively to disturb his vested rights. In Tennessee, there are four factors the court considers when deciding whether a retrospective law impairs a vested right under the Tennessee Constitution: (1) whether a retrospective application advances or impedes the public interest; (2) whether a retrospective application gives effect to or defeats the reasonable expectations of the persons involved; (3) whether the new statute surprises individuals who have long relied on a contrary state of the law; and (4) the extent to which a statute appears to be procedural or remedial.
The appeals court ultimately concluded that applying the 2016 amendment to the decedent’s will contest advances the public policy in favor of allowing a person to decide how her property should pass upon her death. The court also found that the father did not have a reasonable expectation or reliance on the law because the decedent had executed a will that everyone thought was valid until her death. Accordingly, the decedent’s will was ruled to be valid under the 2016 amendment, and the property passed as provided in the will.
Getting your affairs in order before you pass can seem overwhelming, but the experienced estate planning attorneys at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard can navigate you through the process. We can assist Nashville residents and other individuals in executing a last will and testament, creating a trust, settling a loved one’s estate, and more. If you need advice regarding an estate issue, family law matter, or personal injury claim, the litigation team at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard can help. Schedule your appointment by calling (615) 800-7096 or contacting us online.