An individual generally has the right to decide how his or her estate should be distributed. In cases in which the decedent’s will is a product of undue influence, however, the court may set aside the will as invalid. In a December 28, 2017 case, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee addressed the issue of undue influence in a challenge to the decedent’s handwritten will filed by her son.
The relationship between the decedent and her son had become strained after a disagreement just three months before her death, and they stopped speaking. Prior to their disagreement, the son regularly visited his mother and spoke with her on the phone. Around the time of their falling out in June 2015, the decedent hired a housekeeper. The housekeeper also assisted the decedent by running errands, caring for her pets, buying groceries, cashing checks for her, and keeping her company.
In August 2015, the decedent was diagnosed with cancer. She did not tell her son that she was ill. The decedent asked the housekeeper if she would stay at her house until she died because she did not want to be alone. In September, she contacted an estate attorney and requested that he draft a will leaving everything to her housekeeper because she did not want her son to have anything of hers. Before the attorney had time to prepare the will, the decedent took a turn for the worse. The attorney advised her to write a handwritten will, which she did in front of her nurse. Shortly thereafter, the decedent passed away, and her will was submitted to probate. The son filed a petition to set aside the will, arguing that it was invalid because the decedent did not have the capacity to make her will, and the housekeeper exerted undue influence over her.
In Tennessee, a will is valid if the testator (1) makes the decision of her own free will; (2) understands what she is doing; (3) understands to whom she is giving the property and in which proportions; and (4) understands whom she is depriving of the property. The testator is not incompetent if her mind is sufficiently sound to enable her to know and understand what she is doing. The appeals court found that, based on the testimony of three witnesses, the decedent was competent at the time she wrote the will. In addition, there was no evidence that she suffered any mental deficiency, and the decedent had made her wishes known consistently over the course of the last weeks of her life. As a result, the court ruled that the decedent did possess the testamentary capacity to execute a will.
In a claim of undue influence, the court must first determine whether a confidential relationship existed between the testator and the beneficiary. A confidential relationship alone, however, is not sufficient to establish undue influence. The claimant must also show the existence of one suspicious circumstance. The appeals court concluded that although there was a confidential relationship between the decedent and the housekeeper, and despite the unnatural and unusual bequest, there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the making of the will. The court also noted the independent legal advice she received from her attorney. Accordingly, the will was valid.
The probate litigation team at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard represents family members and beneficiaries in estate challenges and will contests. We also offer trust and estate planning services, as well as legal guidance in the areas of family and personal injury law. To arrange a consultation with a skilled Nashville estate attorney, call our office at (615) 800-7096 or complete our online contact form.