Tennessee Court of Appeals Rules in Lost Will Case
Posted by Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC on May 8, 2015
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In a recent case, In Re Estate of Oakley, Tenn. Ct. App. (2015), the court had the task of determining how to rule in a case where a middle-aged business owner and father had committed suicide, and his will could mysteriously not be found. He had given an envelope to a friend and told the friend to give it to an attorney if anything should happen to him.
At trial, there was a dispute as to what had happened to the decedent’s will, and whether one had existed. The trial court held a full hearing and listened to testimony from the two key witnesses who may have had access to the man’s will: his business associate and his wife. Unfortunately, whatever the trial court’s determination regarding the evidence, it issued a very brief opinion, completely bereft of any specific findings of fact. It found that there was no will, and that the estate should be treated as though the man died without a will, also referred to as intestate. Thus, on appeal, the court engaged in an extensive overview of the facts as they were presented in the evidentiary record.
The record showed that the decedent was reportedly depressed and despondent, based on the statements of his father, with whom he purportedly made important business decisions. The decedent owned a family lumber business, which a document he entrusted to a friend apparently left to his father. The business associate who helped the decedent run the business was in charge of opening the safe each day to retrieve deposit slips and the like for the operation of the business. The decedent had made gestures to the safe indicating that his will was stored there, in tandem with that of his mother and father. Yet, on the day when the decedent was discovered dead, his will could not be found.
There was also evidence that both the business associate and the decedent’s wife had deleted various potential evidence, including voicemail messages, text messages, and in the case of the business associate video surveillance footage from the business. Additionally, his wife had been given his briefcase following the police finding him, although she stated there was no will inside. The reason there was scrutiny about the decedent’s wife and business associate was because the propounded will had left the business to the decedent’s father. If it were enforceable, the business associate and wife would be left out of the arrangement, so to speak.
The court stated the rule that when a will cannot be found following the death of the testator, there is a strong presumption that it was destroyed, or that the individual revoked it himself, and that the presumption is reversible but requires clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.
In order to establish a lost will, the party seeking to establish the existence of the lost will must satisfactorily demonstrate:
That the testator made and executed a valid will and that the testator is no longer living;
The substance and contents of the missing will;
That the will cannot be found after diligent search; and
That the will was not revoked by the decedent.
The court then stated that the relevant Tennessee procedural law requires that trial courts include separate findings of fact and conclusions of law in cases without a jury. Here, however, the opinion was short, and it did not contain separate findings of fact. Thus, on appeal, it was nearly impossible for the court to determine the efficacy of the evidence and how to discern whether there was an error in not finding that there was an enforceable will.
Therefore, since the judge in the prior decision had since retired, and the relevant standard for findings of fact had not been met, the court of appeals vacated the judgment and remanded the case for a new trial in order to establish whether the document initially petitioned was the decedent’s Last Will and Testament
The death of a loved one and the task of tending to the decedent’s affairs is a stressful and emotionally trying experience at its best. When heirs dispute the validity of a will or their share of the estate, the process can be even more stressful, delayed, and costly. An experienced estate litigation lawyer can represent your legal interests while ensuring that the estate is administered properly. If you find yourself in need of assistance with estate, probate, or trust litigation, contact us at 615-800-7096 or through our website.
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