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In re Estate of Virginia Spears

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

April 17, 2017


          Session February 15, 2017

         Appeal from the Probate Court for Shelby County No. D-16788 Karen D. Webster, Judge

         This appeal involves a challenge to certain decisions made by the probate court pursuant to a petition to ratify the decisions of the estate's executor. Although we affirm the probate court's determination that a $250, 000.00 debt once owed to the decedent is now extinguished and also affirm its determination that a certain annuity policy should be transferred to the estate, we reverse the probate court's determination that insurance policies owned by the decedent at her death should be transferred to her grandchildren. Further, we reverse the trial court's order to the extent that it directs two other annuity policies to be directed to the decedent's grandchildren. These other two annuities are also assets of the estate that are subject to distribution in accordance with the decedent's will.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Probate Court Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part, and Remanded

          Edward T. Autry and Hannah E. Bleavins, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Marvin Ray Spears, II.

          John C. Wagner, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Micah Britt Spears.

          Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Kenny Armstrong, J., joined.



         Background and Procedural History

         On July 8, 2013, Virginia L. Spears died in Memphis, Tennessee, at ninety years of age. She was survived by two sons, the Appellant Marvin Ray Spears, II ("Ray"), and the Appellee Micah Britt Spears ("Britt").[2] Shortly after his mother's death, on August 21, 2013, Ray filed a petition in the Shelby County Probate Court seeking to admit his mother's last will and testament to probate. A copy of the will, which was attached to Ray's petition, indicated that Ray and Britt were to share equally in Ms. Spears's residuary estate. The will also included a provision appointing Ray as the executor of Ms. Spears's estate. Following the filing of Ray's petition, on August 23, 2013, the probate court admitted the will to probate and issued him letters testamentary.

         As the administration of Ms. Spears's estate progressed, Ray filed a petition on September 22, 2015, wherein he asked the probate court to ratify a number of decisions pertaining to certain estate assets. As is relevant to this appeal, the petition asserted that Britt remained in debt to the estate due to his previous execution of a $250, 000.00 promissory note in Ms. Spears's favor. In addition to this debt issue, Ray's petition alerted the trial court to an issue concerning certain life insurance policies that Ms. Spears had taken out on two of Britt's children (the "Grandchildren"). Although Britt was apparently maintaining that these life insurance policies should be given to the Grandchildren, the petition noted that the policies at issue did not name a beneficiary. As such, the petition averred that the estate was the rightful owner of the policies.

         On October 23, 2015, Britt filed a response to Ray's petition.[3] Therein, Britt maintained that the balance of his $250, 000.00 debt had been forgiven. With respect to the insurance policies, Britt asserted that the Grandchildren should be named as owners of the policies that had been taken out on their respective lives. A hearing on these issues, and others, was later held on December 10, 2015.

         Approximately two months later, on February 16, 2016, the probate court entered an order concerning the proof presented at the December 10, 2015 hearing. Although the probate court began by concluding that there was sufficient evidence to establish that a $250, 000.00 debt had once been owed by Britt to his mother, the court determined that this debt had been extinguished. With respect to the insurance policies in dispute, the probate court concluded that the Grandchildren "should be named as the owner of the policy on their respective lives."

         At the conclusion of its order, the probate court also dealt with certain annuities that had not been averred in the pleadings but had been raised by Ray during the December 10, 2015 hearing and fully discussed by both sides and the court. Although these annuities were listed in Ray's name and had never been owned by his mother, [4] the probate court directed Ray to transfer them to the estate and the Grandchildren.[5] This timely appeal then followed.[6]

         Issues Presented

         In his brief on appeal, Ray raises four issues for our review, which we have slightly reworded as follows:

1. Whether the probate court properly determined that Ms. Spears forgave the $250, 000.00 promissory note.
2. Whether the probate court properly ordered the life insurance policies to be transferred to the Grandchildren.
3. Whether the probate court properly exercised jurisdiction over the annuity policies.
4. Whether the probate court exceeded the scope of the pleadings when it issued its February 16, 2016 order.

         Standard of Review

         In reviewing the trial court's factual findings, our standard of review "is de novo upon the record with a presumption of correctness as to the trial court's findings of fact, unless the preponderance of the evidence is otherwise." Ramsay v. Custer, 387 S.W.3d 566, 568 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2012) (citation omitted). "For the evidence to preponderate against a trial court's finding of fact, it must support another finding of fact with greater convincing effect." Watson v. Watson, 196 S.W.3d 695, 701 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005) (citations omitted). When an issue for decision depends on the determination of the credibility of witnesses, "the trial court is the best judge of the credibility and its findings of credibility are entitled to great weight." Royal Ins. Co. v. Alliance Ins. Co., 690 S.W.2d 541, 543 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1985). Indeed, "[u]nlike appellate courts, trial courts are able to observe witnesses as they testify and to assess their demeanor[.]" Wells v. Tenn. Bd. of Regents, 9 S.W.3d 779, 783 (Tenn. 1999) (citations omitted). On appeal, we will not overturn a trial court's assessment of credibility absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. Regions Bank v. Bric Constructors, LLC, 380 S.W.3d 740, 760 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2011) (citation omitted). In contrast to our review of the trial court's findings of fact, we afford no presumption of correctness to the trial court's legal conclusions. In re Estate of Ledford, 419 S.W.3d 269, 277 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013) (citation omitted).


         We address Ray's issues in the order that he presents them in his brief on appeal. As such, we turn first to his arguments concerning the $250, ...

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