Session November 19, 2014.
Appeal from the Chancery Court for Cheatham County No. P2307 George C. Sexton, Judge.
David J. Callahan, III, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Alan Dale Oakley, Jr.
Christopher E. Thorsen, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Desiree Oakley.
Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Andy D. Bennett and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.
FRANK G. CLEMENT, JR., JUDGE.
William Daniel Oakley ("the decedent") committed suicide on May 22, 2013, at the age of 38. He is survived by his wife, two minor children, his parents, and a sister. The decedent's estate is valued at $2 million, and who inherits a principal asset of the decedent's estate, the Oakley Lumber Company, is dependent upon whether the decedent's last will and testament was revoked by the decedent. The dispositive provisions of the very short will state succinctly: "I leave my home, . . . to my wife, Desiree Oakley, and my two children, . . . I leave my business and property, Oakley Lumber Company, and all other business interests to my father, Alan D. Oakley." Thus, if the will is admitted to probate, the decedent's father inherits the decedent's business interests, which represents a substantial portion of the decedent's estate; however, if the lost will is not admitted to probate, the decedent died intestate and his wife and children are his heirs at law.
The proceedings which gave rise to this appeal were initiated on June 26, 2013, when the named executor of the will, who is not a beneficiary, filed a Petition to Open an Estate and Complaint, requesting that a copy of the testamentary document be established as the decedent's Last Will and Testament and admitted to probate; the decedent's father, Alan Oakley, joined in the petition. The decedent's wife, Desiree Oakley, opposed the petition. Following a bench trial, the court denied the petition, finding "the proof presented falls short of the clear and convincing standard." The relevant historical facts and procedural history leading up to the trial court's ruling are summarized below.
Oakley Lumber Company was founded in 1972 by the decedent's grandfather, who along with the decedent's father, Alan Oakley, managed the business until 1989 when Alan Oakley left to pursue a career in real estate. The decedent, who started working for the company at an early age, acquired the business from his grandfather in 1998, and the decedent operated the business until his death in 2013.
In 1999, Alan Oakley, started a new business, Oakley Window & Door, which he located on the same property as Oakley Lumber; the two companies, although separate businesses, shared the same warehouse, equipment, trucks, trailers, and other products. Although the two businesses shared the same location and were separately owned, the decedent and his father worked cooperatively, made important business decisions together, and jointly marketed their businesses as "The Oakley Companies."
The decedent and his wife were married in 1996 and had two children together. Wife had a nursing degree but did not work during the marriage. The family home was located on eighty acres of property in Kingston Springs, a portion of which was principally used by the decedent's son to train for competitive motocross racing.
On September 19, 2012, the decedent executed a will that devised Oakley Lumber Company to his father, Alan Oakley; the rest and residue of the estate was bequeathed to his wife and children. Mary Frances Rudy, an attorney, was named the executrix. The subscribing witnesses to the execution of the will were Sean Hinton and Jeremy Sisemore, friends and colleagues of the decedent. Although the witnesses did not see the decedent place the will in the safe located in his office, the decedent subsequently told Mr. Sisemore that he had placed the will in his safe, where he also kept his parents' wills. According to the testimony of decedent's sister, Dorothy Oakley Turner, who was the bookkeeper for Oakley Lumber, the only people who had the combination to access the safe other than the decedent were herself and Jim Blye, the office manager of Oakley Lumber.
Five months later, in February 2013, the decedent called Mr. Hinton and asked him to swing by the office. When Mr. Hinton arrived, the decedent handed him an envelope labeled "Mary Francis Rudy" and instructed him to deliver the envelope to her if anything should happen to the decedent. Mr. Hinton kept the unopened envelope in his home office and did not discuss the envelope with anyone until after the decedent died.
Mr. Sisemore dropped by the decedent's office in March 2013, and during the visit he asked the decedent if he had "taken care" of his will. The decedent replied that he had, at which time the decedent gestured to the safe in his office. The decedent also stated to Mr. Sisemore that his father's will and mother's will were kept in the safe.
Several family members and friends stated that the decedent appeared to be despondent, physically ill and losing weight for a period of time preceding his death. During this time, which was over several months, the decedent told several family members that he was sad and distressed over his family's spending habits; he also frequently commented on the stress of maintaining and operating his business as well as supporting his family.
Three weeks before his death, his father found the decedent alone and depressed at a cemetery near his home at which time he had a long, serious discussion with the decedent about his depression. The decedent told his father that he felt like a credit card to his family and did not have a healthy husband-wife relationship. At the end of their conversation, the decedent handed his father a wadded up piece of paper and told him to throw it away. Believing that the decedent had been cheered up, the decedent's father told the decedent that he would not throw it away, but would keep it and they could read it and laugh about it later. The decedent's father did not read the note until after the decedent's death; it reads as follows:
My family, life has not been easy on me. I have been dealt a lot of things, and I've always tried to make the best of it all. I do not know why I can't make everyone happy. Lately, I only bring misery wherever I am. My wife and kids only see me down and out, and I can't figure out how to fix this. I have nothing more to give. I am too wore out, and I can't think right anymore. This is my choice, and it is only my fault. Nobody to blame except me.
Dad, sell everything and get my family downsized so they learn to have a normal, simple life. Explain to them that I love them more than life. I wish I could have been stronger.
The decedent's depression and stress-related issues continued. On the day before his death, the decedent's father encouraged him to see a doctor about his depression, and the two of them went that day to visit a doctor. The doctor recommended exercise to reduce stress and prescribed a mild antidepressant for the decedent.
It was on the following day, May 22, 2013, that the decedent took his life. In the hours before his death, the decedent sent a text message to Jim Blye, the office manager of Oakley Lumber, that read:
At park by Walmart. Can't keep this together anymore. Make sure my family knows it was my problem, not them. I just had too much put on me through this life, and then got too weak to handle it. I'm sorry, bro. Please help sell it all and get them settled.
The police were immediately notified of the text and went to the scene to investigate. After finding the decedent dead, they searched his truck and among the items found was the decedent's briefcase. The police did not open the brief case. The decedent's wife was notified, and she came to the scene; she was allowed to take the briefcase with her when she left. The decedent's wife stated at trial that she does not remember taking his briefcase from the scene but several witnesses observed her leave with it. Nevertheless, she acknowledged that the briefcase turned up in her room later, and she testified that it did not contain her husband's will.
The day after the decedent's death, Jim Blye, the office manager of Oakley Lumber, went to work as usual, despite encouragement from the decedent's father and sister to leave the business closed that day. Mr. Blye arrived at the office at 6:30 a.m., as he was typically responsible for opening the business every day. Although his usual practice was to open the safe when he arrived to, inter alia, remove the cash bag in order to transact cash sales, he testified that he could not recall whether he opened the safe when he arrived. At approximately 9 a.m., the decedent's father and sister arrived together, and they, along with Jim Blye, opened the safe in the decedent's office to look for a will or other important documents. The decedent's will was not found in the safe, but the wills for his parents were in the safe.
As instructed by the decedent months earlier, Mr. Hinton attempted to contact Mary Frances Rudy in order to deliver the envelope the decedent had given him. He was unable to reach her for a couple of weeks, however, because Ms. Rudy was out of town. Following her return, Mr. Hinton presented the envelope to Ms. Rudy at her office; she opened the envelope to find a copy of the decedent's will of which she was previously unaware.
Upon discovering that the decedent had executed a will, Ms. Rudy contacted the decedent's wife and father while Mr. Hinton remained in her office. Ms. Rudy conducted each phone call over speakerphone so Mr. Hinton could participate if needed. Ms. Rudy testified that the decedent's father was very surprised and upset upon learning that his son had a will, but that the decedent's wife was relatively calm when she received the news. Ms. Rudy and Mr. Hinton both ...