When a beneficiary under a will has died before the testator has passed away, the devise to the beneficiary is known as a lapsed gift. In some cases, this may complicate the probate administration proceedings. In a July 25, 2017 Tennessee estate case, the Court of Appeals reviewed a dispute involving a provision of the decedent’s will bequeathing the residue and remainder of her estate to her former husband, who had predeceased her.
The will at issue was executed in 1991. When her husband died in 1996, the decedent never revoked the 1991 will. The decedent passed away in 2012, and the husband’s children and the former stepchildren of the decedent claimed entitlement to the residuary estate by virtue of Tennessee’s anti-lapse statute. Conversely, the executrix of the estate argued that such a disposition was inconsistent with the decedent’s intent.
In Tennessee, the intent of the person making the will is the most important factor in will interpretation cases, and it is primarily ascertained from the words of the will itself, read in the light of the surrounding and attending circumstances. Evidence outside the will may be admissible to show the circumstances surrounding the testator when she executed her will and to resolve any ambiguity in the will as to the testator’s intentions. However, the evidence is inadmissible to add to, vary, or contradict the language used in a will.
The appeals court concluded that the plain language of the will indicated the decedent’s intent to dispose of the entirety of her estate by will and for her former husband to receive whichever interest was remaining. Since the husband predeceased the decedent, the court looked at Tennessee’s anti-lapse statute. This statute prevents the lapsed gift from passing to the decedent’s heirs through intestate succession and instead passes it to the representatives of the predeceased beneficiary. The anti-lapse statute does not apply, however, if the will specifically provide that another person is to receive the gift should the beneficiary predecease the decedent, or if the will states that the beneficiary can only receive the gift if he survives the decedent.
The appeals court went on to find that the decedent’s will did not place any conditions on the husband’s entitlement to the residuary estate, nor did it specify who was to receive the residuary estate in the event that he predeceased the decedent. Accordingly, the court concluded that the anti-lapse statute applied to the case and that the husband’s children were entitled to receive the decedent’s residuary estate under the will.
The Nashville estate planning attorneys at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard can assist you in settling a loved one’s estate or in crafting your own plan for the distribution of your estate after your death. From probate disputes to trust creation, our dedicated lawyers can handle your matter with proficiency and compassion. Make an appointment with one of our skilled estate attorneys by calling (615) 800-7096 or submitting our online contact form.