Supreme Court holds that signing an affidavit of attesting witnesses is not the same as signing a will

November 16, 2012

In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that signing an affidavit of attesting witnesses is not the same as signing a will.  In the case before the Court, Mr. Thomas Grady Chastain signed a one-page affidavit of attesting witnesses but failed to sign his separate two-page will. After Mr. Chastain’s death, his daughter filed a petition to probate the unsigned will and attached the signed affidavit of attesting witnesses. Several of Mr. Chastain’s relatives asked the court to declare the unsigned will invalid. 

The trial court ruled that Mr. Chastain’s signature on the affidavit was not enough to satisfy a state law requiring his signature on the will.  By a 2 to 1 vote, the Court of Appeals reversed and found Mr. Chastain’s signature on the affidavit sufficient to validate his will.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted review and held that Mr. Chastain’s signature on the separate affidavit of attesting witnesses does not satisfy a seventy-one-year-old state law requiring his signature on the two-page will. The Court explained: “Statutes requiring the observance of formalities in the execution of wills are designed to prevent fraud, mistakes, and uncertainty in the testamentary dispositions of property.  Enforcing strict compliance with such statutory formalities is intended to preserve ‘the inviolability’ and ‘sanctity’ of a testator’s right to dispose of property by will.” 

The Court declined to relax Tennessee’s laws regarding the execution of wills, explaining that “the Legislature is the entity authorized to prescribe the conditions by which property may be transferred by will in this State, and courts have no authority to modify those conditions.”

To read the In re Estate of Chastain opinion, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, visit TNCourts.gov.