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In re Estate of Brock

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

November 3, 2016

IN RE: ESTATE OF J. DON BROCK

          Session: September 13, 2016

         Direct Appeal from the Chancery Court for Hamilton County No. 15-P-245 Jeffrey M. Atherton, Chancellor

          Jerry H. Summers and Marya Lyn Schalk, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and William David Cunningham, Layfayette, Georgia, for the appellants, Melissa Sue Brock Adcock, Krystal Gail Brock Parker, Jennifer Rebecca Brock, Darryl William Brock, and Walter Edward Brock.

          Richard W. Bethea, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellees, Sammye M. Brock, W. Norman Smith, and Estate of J. Don Brock.

          Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., joined.

          OPINION

          BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE

         I. Background and Procedural History

         The Contestants[1] are five adopted children of J. Don Brock ("Mr. Brock") and Lynne Brock. The Brocks previously adopted two other children, Benjamin Brock and Elizabeth Brock, who are not parties to this will contest. The Brocks divorced in 1993, and Mr. Brock married Sammye Brock on July 4, 1998. Mr. Brock was diagnosed with mesothelioma in May 2012 and died on March 10, 2015.

         Prior to his death, Mr. Brock executed a will on October 1, 2013 ("2013 Will") naming Sammye Brock and W. Norman Smith as co-executors of his estate ("The Estate") and explicitly disinheriting each of the Contestants.[2] The Estate submitted Mr. Brock's 2013 Will for probate on March 31, 2015. The Contestants filed their notice of will contest on September 3, 2015, alleging improper execution, lack of testamentary capacity, and fraud and/or undue influence. Specifically, the Contestants challenged the authenticity of Mr. Brock's signature, which appeared only on the last page of the will, and alleged that Mr. Brock lacked testamentary capacity as a result of his illness. Lastly, the Contestants alleged that Sammye Brock committed fraud or exerted undue influence on Mr. Brock by conspiring with her two children, among others, to deprive the Contestants of their "rightful inheritances." The Contestants noted that they were unaware of their disinheritance under the 2013 Will until after Mr. Brock's death.

         The chancery court entered an agreed order on September 14, 2015, stating that the Contestants had standing to challenge the 2013 Will and transferring the case to the circuit court. However, the Estate filed a motion in the circuit court on November 12, 2015, alleging that a newly discovered will executed by Mr. Brock in 2012 ("2012 Will") similarly disinherited all of the Contestants and seeking to have the case transferred back to chancery court for a determination of standing. The circuit court granted the motion and transferred the case back to the chancery court on November 24, 2015. On December 22, 2015, the Estate filed a motion to amend or set aside the agreed order, alleging that the 2012 Will disinherited all of the Contestants and that the Contestants therefore lacked standing under Tennessee law.[3] The Contestants then filed a motion to amend their notice of will contest on December 31, 2015, seeking to contest the validity of the 2012 Will as well as additional wills dated 2006, 1998, and 1994. The Contestants noted that while none of them would inherit under the 2012 Will, only two were excluded under the 2006 and 1998 Wills and that only one contestant was excluded under the 1994 Will. If all of the wills were determined to be invalid, all of the Contestants would inherit through intestate succession.

         On February 3, 2016, the chancery court heard the pending motions and ruled that the Contestants did not have standing to challenge the 2013 Will and, therefore, that the Contestants' motion to amend their notice of will contest was rendered moot. In its oral ruling, the chancery court noted that it was "extremely troubled . . . that the status of the Tennessee law in its current form is harsh[, ] neither fair nor equitable, and promotes the potential for fraud by simply creating two wills and [having] one insulate the other." Nevertheless, the court determined that under Cowan and Jennings, the Contestants lacked standing to challenge the 2013 Will because the 2012 Will was facially valid, not challenged as being improperly executed, and did not leave anything to the Contestants. The Contestants then filed a motion seeking to have the chancery court alter or amend its judgment, arguing that the court improperly relied on a memorandum opinion, that the court's reliance on Cowan and Jennings was "inapplicable to this case's factual pattern, " and that the Contestants discovered a Tennessee Court of Appeals case they believed supported their position. The chancery court heard argument on the motion on March 14, 2016 and entered an order denying the Contestants' motion on March 22, 2016. The Contestants appealed.

         II. Issues

         The Contestants present the following issues for review on appeal, which we have slightly reworded:

I. Whether the trial court erred in granting the Estate's motion to dismiss by relying on an unprobated will that is alleged to have been a product of undue influence.
II. Whether the Appellants have a constitutional right under both the Tennessee and United States constitutions to challenge wills allegedly procured by fraud and undue influence.
III. Whether the Limited Power of Appointment in the 2013 and 2012 wills conferred ...

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