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In re Estate of Watkins

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

July 25, 2017

IN RE ESTATE OF WANDA JOYCE WATKINS

          Session: June 20, 2017.

         Appeal from the Probate Court for Loudon County No. 4455 Rex Alan Dale, Judge

         This appeal involves the interpretation and enforcement of a will executed by Wanda Joyce Watkins ("the Decedent").[1] Specifically at issue is a provision bequeathing the residue and remainder of the Decedent's estate to her prior husband, Mr. John Vance ("Mr. Vance"). Although Mr. Vance's children ("the Vance children") claimed entitlement to the residuary estate by virtue of the anti-lapse statute codified at Tennessee Code Annotated section 32-3-105, the executrix of the estate contended that such a disposition was inconsistent with the Decedent's intent. The trial court agreed with the position of the executrix and rejected the Vance children's claim to receive under the will. The trial court also held that portions of the respective parties' attorney's fees should be paid by the estate. Although we reverse the trial court's decision regarding the application of the anti-lapse statute, we affirm its order as it pertains to the assessment of attorney's fees.

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

          Ginger Wilson Buchanan, Cleveland, Tennessee, for the appellants, John Darrell Vance, Nancy Ann Ferrara, Wendy Michelle Vance Knott, and William Landon Vance.

          O.E. Schow, IV and Robert L. Vance, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Kimberly B. Jenkins.

          Amy Bingham and Barry N. Blanton, Appellees. [2]

          Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr. and Thomas R. Frierson, II, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          ARNOLD B. GOLDIN, JUDGE.

         Background and Procedural History

         The Vance children, who are the Appellants in this matter, are the former stepchildren of the Decedent. Their father, Mr. Vance, was the Decedent's second husband. In April 1991, the Decedent executed a will that provided for the disposition of her estate. The will, which was prepared by counsel, contained the following residuary provision which forms the basis of this dispute:

FIFIH: All the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, I give, devise and bequeath to my husband, JOHN M. VANCE.

         Mr. Vance died on July 14, 1996, predeceasing the Decedent. Notably, the Decedent never revoked her 1991 will. She passed away after a bout with cancer on May 28, 2012. Following her death, her will was admitted to probate in the Probate Court for Loudon County.

         The present controversy ensued when the Decedent's daughter and executrix of the estate, Kimberly B. Jenkins ("Ms. Jenkins"), filed a "Petition to Construe Will" on November 12, 2013. On the same date, the Vance children filed a motion to intervene. Specifically at issue in these filings was the disposition of the residuary estate, which the will bequeathed to Mr. Vance. Of particular concern to Ms. Jenkins was the disposition of a farm that the Decedent had inherited from her family. Ms. Jenkins maintained that, although the anti-lapse statute codified at Tennessee Code Annotated section 32-3-105 might be construed to hold that the interest of Mr. Vance should pass to his issue, the court should construe the will in favor of a finding that the Decedent intended all of her real property to pass to her lineal descendants and not the lineal descendants of Mr. Vance. In their motion to intervene, the Vance children asserted that the anti-lapse statute governed the case and that they were "rightfully entitled to the assets directed to pass to John M. Vance."

         A hearing on the matter was held in May 2014. During the hearing, Ms. Jenkins testified-over the objection of the Vance children's counsel-to the relationship that had existed between the Decedent and the Vance children. Ms. Jenkins stated that their relationship had been a "very tense" one, and she testified that the Decedent had never said anything when she executed her will to indicate that she wanted the Vance ...


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