Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Standards for Contesting a Will

November 22, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed previous rulings that dismissed a lawsuit contesting the October 1, 2013 Will (“2013 Will”) of Dr. J. Don Brock, a resident of Hamilton County. 

Dr. Brock died March 10, 2015, leaving a sizeable estate.  He is survived by his wife, seven children he and his former wife adopted, and two stepdaughters.  Dr. Brock’s 2013 Will was admitted to probate court, and it divided his estate among his wife, his stepdaughters, and his eldest two children from his former marriage.  The 2013 Will expressly excluded Dr. Brock’s five other children, and they brought a lawsuit contesting the will. 

After the lawsuit was filed, the executors of Dr. Brock’s estate produced copies of four earlier wills: (1) a 2012 Will; (2) a 2006 Will; (3) a 1998 Will; and (4) a 1994 Will.  The 2012 Will also excluded the five children, and on that basis, the executors argued that the excluded children lacked standing to challenge the 2013 Will because, even if the challenge was successful, they would gain nothing because the 2012 Will also disinherited them.  In response, the excluded children asked for permission to expand their lawsuit to challenge all of the prior wills.  They argued that, while all of them were disinherited by the 2012 Will, only two of them were excluded under the 2006 and 1998 Wills and only one of them was excluded under the 1994 Will. As Dr. Brock’s children, all of them would inherit under the laws of intestacy should all of the wills be declared invalid. 

The probate court granted the executors’ motion to dismiss for lack of standing. It relied on two earlier decisions of the Tennessee Supreme Court, which the probate court interpreted as holding that persons disinherited by successive wills lack standing to bring a lawsuit contesting the most recent will.  The Court of Appeals affirmed. 

The Supreme Court reversed, explaining that its earlier decisions were not controlling.  In those decisions, the persons bringing the will contests had been disinherited in two successive wills and the earlier will had already been held valid by admission or judicial decision.  The Supreme Court declined to adopt a broad rule precluding persons disinherited by successive wills from ever bringing a will contest.  Instead, the Supreme Court ruled that parties may establish standing to contest a will by showing that they would be entitled to share in the decedent’s estate if the challenged will, or challenged wills, were set aside or no will existed and the laws of intestacy applied.  Concluding that Dr. Brock’s excluded children had satisfied this standard, the Supreme Court reversed the dismissal and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

To read the unanimous opinion in In re Estate of Brock, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.