A legal challenge to the validity of a will may only be brought by a person who, if successful, would benefit under the terms of another will or the applicable intestacy law. In In re Estate of Bostic (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 6, 2016), the Court of Appeals of Tennessee reviewed whether the decedent’s sister had standing to contest his will during probate administration, and whether the trial court erred in finding that she was estopped from bringing her claim after she entered the decedent’s will into probate as the executor.
In In re Estate of Bostic, the decedent’s will bestowed his house, personal property, and $25,000 to a friend, $12,000 to each of his grandsons, and the residue of the estate to his sister. The decedent’s sister was appointed as the executor of his estate upon his passing. The sister also filed a petition challenging the bequest to the decedent’s friend as a product of undue influence, alleging that they had a confidential relationship, that the decedent was in a weakened mental and physical condition, and that the friend was involved in the creation of the decedent’s will. In response, the friend denied the allegations and also filed a motion for the court to remove the decedent’s sister as the executor.
The trial court granted the motion and appointed a new administrator to carry out the provisions of the decedent’s will. The trial court also dismissed the will contest, finding that although the sister did have standing in the matter, she was estopped from contesting the will because she had introduced it into probate and affirmed its provisions when she received her appointment as the executor. On appeal, the sister argued that the dismissal was in error because she learned of the alleged fraud after the will had been offered for probate. The estate argued that she lacked standing to challenge the will.
To have standing to contest a will, a contestant must show that she would take a share (or larger share) of the decedent’s estate if the contest is successful. In Tennessee, any lapsed or void gifts generally become part of the residue of the will, unless the will expressly provides otherwise. In Bostic, there was no language limiting the residue of the estate. As a result, the appeals court ruled that by contesting only a portion of the will, any issues of standing were cured because a successful contest would increase the sister’s share as the residuary beneficiary under the will.
In Tennessee, if an executor had knowledge of defects in the will but nevertheless proceeded to probate it, she is estopped from contesting the will. However, an executor is not estopped from challenging a will after presenting it for probate when she presented the will in good faith and had no knowledge of any defects in the will at the time she was appointed. Since the lower court failed to make any findings of fact on this issue, the appeals court remanded the case for a determination on whether the sister had prior knowledge that would estop her from contesting the will or otherwise acted in bad faith.
The Nashville estate attorneys at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard can represent individuals involved in probate litigation as well as advise people in trust and estate planning. We understand the sensitive nature of these matters, and we provide confidential and trusted guidance to our clients. If you would like to discuss your estate or family law issue with one of our dedicated attorneys, call our office at (615) 800-7096 or complete our online contact form and request a consultation.