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Efferson v. Stephens

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

February 9, 2015

LANEY T. EFFERSON ET AL.
v.
BARBARA R. STEPHENS

Session October 21, 2014.

Appeal from the Chancery Court for Sumner County No. 2012-CV-154 Tom E. Gray, Chancellor.

Keith C. Dennen and Kerry M. Ewald, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellants, Laney T. Efferson and Benny Taylor, Jr.

John Ray Phillips, Jr., Gallatin, Tennessee, for the appellee, Barbara Ruth Stephens.

Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Andy D. Bennett and Brandon O. Gibson, JJ., joined.

OPINION

FRANK G. CLEMENT, JR., JUDGE.

The pivotal facts of this matter are undisputed. Willowdeen Anderson ("Decedent" or "grandmother") was the mother of three daughters, Betty Jean Taylor, Barbara Ruth Stephens, and Billie Dean Witalec. Ms. Witalec died intestate in July 2005. Her estate totaled approximately $1 million, which her elderly mother, Decedent, stood to inherit as sole heir-at-law. However, on August 2, 2005, Decedent, who was 90 years old at the time, executed a "Sale and Assignment of Intestate Interest" and two quitclaim deeds, transferring her interest in Ms. Witalec's estate to one of her two surviving daughters, Ms. Stephens ("Defendant").

Shortly thereafter, Decedent suffered a stroke and during her ensuing hospitalization, she executed a durable power of attorney, a "Receipt and Transfer of Property" completing her transfer of Ms. Witalec's estate to Defendant, and a will that bequeathed her entire estate to Defendant, thereby disinheriting her other surviving daughter, Ms. Taylor.

Decedent lived another four years, dying at 94 years of age on August 3, 2009. Soon thereafter, but without filing a petition to admit Decedent's will to probate, Defendant retained the services of legal counsel to pursue a medical malpractice claim. Upon petition of her counsel, the Probate Court for Wilson County appointed Defendant's counsel administrator ad litem of Decedent's estate in October 2009 authorizing him to commence the medical malpractice action.

Ms. Taylor, the surviving daughter who was disinherited by the 2005 will, died in August 2011, without ever challenging the validity of the 2005 transfers or her mother's will. Following Ms. Taylor's death, her two children, Laney Efferson and Benny Taylor, Jr., were appointed co-executors of her estate.

On August 3, 2012, one year after Ms. Taylor's death, Ms. Efferson and Mr. Taylor ("Plaintiffs") commenced this action against Defendant "on behalf of Decedent, their grandmother, "Willowdeen Burrows Anderson" in Sumner County Chancery Court, alleging undue influence, breach of fiduciary duty, and conversion/theft with respect to the 2005 inter vivos transactions between Defendant and their grandmother. Plaintiffs alleged that, at the time of these transactions, their grandmother was of unsound mind and in poor health, suffering from age-related dementia, hemi-paresis, problems walking, and was dependent on others for her basic needs.

The gravamen of the complaint was that Defendant induced and manipulated Decedent, who was incompetent, into assigning or transferring her interest in Ms. Witalec's estate to Defendant and executing a will disinheriting Plaintiffs' mother, Ms. Taylor; as a consequence, Plaintiffs alleged the assignments and transfers were invalid. Plaintiffs requested that a constructive trust be imposed on the assets obtained from Decedent by Defendant, that an injunction be implemented prohibiting the disposal or liquidation by Defendant of the assets, and that a judgment in the amount of $1 million be entered in this cause for Plaintiffs on behalf of Decedent.[1]

Defendant timely answered asserting that Decedent "knew exactly what she was doing and all legal documents were prepared at her specific direction and executed by her voluntarily and without any outside influence." Defendant also asserted lack of standing and the statute of limitations as affirmative defenses.

On January 31, 2013, Decedent's will was admitted to probate without a challenge or contest. Eleven months later, in December 2013, Defendant filed three dispositive motions in the chancery court: a motion for summary judgment for lack of standing and two motions to dismiss. Specifically, Defendant contended that Plaintiffs lacked standing to bring an action on Decedent's behalf as they were not beneficiaries of her will, and, thus, they had not suffered injury from the transfers or assignments of which they complained. Defendant ...


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