A recently released opinion by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, In re Estate of Leonard Malugin, addressed the issue of testamentary capacity and undue influence in a will contest case. The decedent’s daughter challenged the 2006 Will and 2012 Codicil of the decedent, arguing that he lacked the testamentary capacity to execute either document and that the will was executed under undue influence.
The decedent and his wife executed reciprocal wills in 1995, in which they divided their estate equally among their five children. Since they did not approve of their daughter’s husband, her 1/5 share of the estate was to be placed in a trust, and she would only receive the assets if she divorced her husband. In 2006, the decedent executed a new will, revoking all prior wills. The 2006 Will bequeathed $1,000 to his daughter and the remainder of the estate to be divided equally among his other four children. The 2006 Will did not mention the decedent’s wife, who was still alive at the time it was executed. In August 2012, the decedent executed a codicil to his will, removing one of the executors named in the prior will and ratifying his 2006 Will. The decedent died in 2013, and his daughter brought an action contesting the 2006 Will and 2012 Codicil. After a bench trial, the trial court found that the decedent had the testamentary capacity and was not unduly influenced.
Tennessee law requires that at the time a will is executed, the testator must be of sufficiently sound mind so as to understand the force and consequence of making the will. The will may be challenged on the theory that at the time of the will’s execution, the testator lacked sufficient mental capacity. While evidence of the testator’s failing mind and memory may be admissible, his mental condition at the very time of executing the will is the only point of inquiry for the court.
Although the decedent was illiterate, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when he executed the 2006 Will, and was suffering from advanced dementia at the time of his death, the Court of Appeals found that none of the evidence went against the trial court’s finding of his sufficient testamentary capacity. In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Court of Appeals focused on the testimony of witnesses who had been with the decedent at the time that the 2006 Will and 2012 Codicil were executed. The Court of Appeals found that, despite evidence indicating that the decedent’s mental health had begun to deteriorate, none of the witness testimony demonstrated that he lacked capacity at the time of execution. The Court of Appeals also found that no undue influence was present, based on testimony from the attorney who drafted the codicil that the executor was not involved in any discussions regarding the codicil.
The court’s ruling verifies the importance of having a knowledgeable attorney involved in drafting your will and answering any questions that may arise. To discuss your estate planning needs with an experienced attorney, contact the Nashville firm of Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard. We handle a variety of cases, including estate, personal injury, and family law issues. To schedule a consultation, call (615) 800-7096 or contact us online.