Tennessee Supreme Court Reverses Jury Verdict That Invalidated Marriage and Will

February 26, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court has sent a Hamblen County case back to chancery court for a retrial, after ruling that certain evidence regarding a will and a widow’s real estate holding was improperly admitted.

A jury verdict invalidated the marriage of Raymond Smallman and Linda Caraway, which occurred shortly before Smallman’s death, and his purported will offered for probate by Caraway.

In 2006, Smallman and Caraway met, began dating, and decided to marry, planning a June 2008 wedding.  In Spring 2008, Smallman was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, and the wedding plans were cancelled.  Smallman’s radiation therapy and chemotherapy were unsuccessful and his health declined rapidly.  In April 2009, Smallman executed a will at his attorney’s office, naming Caraway primary beneficiary of his estate valued at over a million dollars.  Caraway moved into Smallman’s residence and took care of him as his health worsened.  On June 24, 2009, Smallman and Caraway were married at Smallman’s home.  Thirteen days later, Smallman died of cancer.

Caraway filed a petition as Smallman’s widow seeking to have his will admitted to probate.  Smallman’s two sons by an earlier marriage filed a declaratory judgment action asking the trial court to declare the marriage void and to find that Smallman died intestate.  The Smallman sons alleged that the marriage and the will were invalid because their father lacked the mental capacity to marry or execute a will, and because of Caraway’s undue influence and fraud.  At trial, the court allowed the jury to hear evidence regarding the will of Caraway’s late mother, and of the value and extent of Caraway’s real estate holdings.  The jury found for the Smallman sons on all issues, and the trial court invalidated the marriage and ruled that Smallman died intestate.

Today, the Tennessee Supreme Court in an opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee ruled that the evidence regarding Caraway’s real estate holdings and her mother’s will was irrelevant and prejudicial, and that the error in allowing the jury to hear it probably affected the verdict.  The Court reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case for a new jury trial.

To read the In Re Estate of Raymond L. Smallman opinion, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee and the separate concurring/dissenting opinion authored by Justice William C. Koch, Jr., visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.