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In re Estate of Bostic

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 6, 2016

IN RE ESTATE OF ELLRA DONALD BOSTIC

          Assigned on Briefs October 4, 2016

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Hawkins County No. 2015-PR-152 Douglas T. Jenkins, Chancellor

         Decedent's sister was appointed as executor of the estate and subsequently filed a will contest complaint regarding a single bequest in the will. The trial court removed sister as executor and appointed an administrator pendente lite. Ultimately, the trial court dismissed sister's will contest on the basis that the sister was estopped from attacking the will after her appointment as executor. Sister appeals. We affirm the trial court's ruling with regard to sister's standing to contest the will. However, we vacate the trial court's dismissal of sister's will contest on the basis of estoppel and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion. Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed in part, Vacated in part, and Remanded

          Jerry J. Fabus, Jr., Johnson City, Tennessee, for the appellant, June Bostic Lane.

          Russell W. Adkins, Kingsport, Tennessee, for the appellee, Linda M. Mullins.

          David L. Robbins, Johnson City, Tennessee, for the appellee, Estate of Ellra Donald Bostic.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr. and Richard H. Dinkins, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE

         Background

         On May 22, 2015, Ellra Donald Bostic (the "Decedent") executed a last will and testament ("the will"), naming Appellant June Bostic Lane ("Contestant") as executor.[1]Under the terms of the will: (1) Decedent's two grandsons were each to receive a monetary sum of $500.00 per month for twenty-four months; (2) Appellee Linda Mullins, Decedent's "friend, " was to receive Decedent's house, the contents of the house, a trailer, all camping equipment and accessories, and $25, 000.00; and (3) Contestant was to receive the residue of the estate. The Decedent died on August 22, 2015, at the age of seventy-two. On September 11, 2015, Contestant filed a sworn complaint to probate the Decedent's will and to be appointed executor of Decedent's estate ("the Estate") without bond in the Probate Division of the Hawkins County Chancery Court. On September 3, 2015, the trial court entered an order admitting the will to probate, directing that letters testamentary be issued to Contestant, and waiving the requirement that Contestant file an inventory or make accounting to the trial court as provided in Tennessee Code Annotated section 30-2-301. On September 11, 2015, letters testamentary were issued to Contestant and Contestant's "Oath of Execut[or]" was filed. The Oath specifically stated that Contestant would "honestly and faithfully discharge" her duties "according to the terms of" Decedent's will.

         On December 2, 2015, Contestant filed a petition to contest Decedent's will. Therein, Contestant alleged that Ms. Mullins was the paramour of Decedent. According to Contestant, however, Ms. Mullins fraudulently led Decedent to believe that her husband was deceased. Contestant alleged that this fraud, coupled with the confidential relationship between Decedent and Ms. Mullins, Decedent's weakened mental and physical condition, and Ms. Mullins involvement in the creation of the will, established that the bequest to Ms. Mullins was the product of undue influence. Although the complaint did not allege fraud or undue influence against either of Decedent's grandsons, it sought to set aside the entire will.

         On or about January 4, 2016, Ms. Mullins filed a motion to remove Contestant as executor and to appoint an "Administrator Pendente Lite"[2] pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 30-1-108.[3] According to the motion, Contestant allegedly "almost immediately" removed contents from Decedent's home, refused to account for their whereabouts, refused to communicate with Ms. Mullins as a beneficiary under the will, filed a police report and posted flyers in the neighborhood accusing Ms. Mullins of theft, and claimed ownership of Decedent's tools. On or about the same day, Ms. Mullins also filed an objection to Contestant's notice of contest on the bases of standing and two separate estoppel grounds: (1) that Contestant may not receive benefits under the will and at the same time attack it; and (2) that Contestant may not attack the will that she had previously sworn to uphold. On January 5, 2016, Contestant filed a motion to amend her will contest complaint to correct the standing issue raised by Ms. Mullins; specifically, Contestant sought to amend her will contest to only contest the provision of the will naming Ms. Mullins as beneficiary. Thereafter, Contestant also filed a response to Ms. Mullins's objection to the will contest, denying the material allegations contained therein. On January 12, 2015, without objection by either party, the trial court granted Contestant's motion to amend the will contest complaint, granted Ms. Mullins's motion to remove Contestant as executor and appoint an administrator pendente lite, and appointed Appellee Attorney David Robbins as the "Administrator C.T.A."[4] ("the Estate, " and, together with Ms. Mullins, "Appellees").

         The trial court held a hearing on the will contest on February 3, 2016. On February 19, 2016, the trial court entered its order dismissing the will contest. First, the trial court found that Contestant had standing to contest the gift to Ms. Mullins because a successful contest could increase Contestant's share as a residuary beneficiary under the will. The trial court also found that Contestant need not forfeit any benefits that she received under the will in order to contest the will.[5] The trial court, however, ruled that Contestant was "estopped from contesting the will" or any of its provisions after she introduced and affirmed the Will, ...


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