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In re Estate of Brock

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Knoxville

November 22, 2017

IN RE: ESTATE OF J. DON BROCK

          Session September 6, 2017

         Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals Chancery Court for Hamilton County No. 15-P-245 Jeffrey M. Atherton, Chancellor.

         We granted permission to appeal to determine whether the contestants-five of the decedent's seven children-have standing to bring this will contest. The contestants were expressly disinherited by a will dated October 1, 2013, and admitted to probate and by a prior will, dated October 11, 2012, produced during this litigation. The trial court dismissed this will contest for lack of standing, concluding that two prior decisions of this Court-Cowan v. Walker, 96 S.W. 967 (Tenn. 1906) and Jennings v. Bridgeford, 403 S.W.2d 289 (Tenn. 1966)-required the dismissal. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Although we agree with the courts below that Cowan and Jennings include imprecise language that could be viewed as establishing a broad, bright-line rule that persons disinherited by facially valid successive wills lack standing, we conclude that those decisions are factually distinct and did not announce such a broad rule. We reaffirm the general rule, long recognized in Tennessee, that to establish standing a contestant must show that he or she would be entitled to share in the decedent's estate if the will were set aside or if no will existed. The contestants here have satisfied this requirement by showing that they would share in the decedent's estate under the laws of intestacy and under prior wills. Thus, the judgments of the trial court and Court of Appeals dismissing this will contest for lack of standing are reversed, and this matter is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgments of the Court of Appeals and Trial Court Reversed; Case Remanded

          Jerry H. Summers and Marya Lyn Schalk, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and William David Cunningham, Lafayette, 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, Jennifer Kent Exum, Cameron A. Kapperman, Nathan L. Kinard, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellees, Sammye M. Brock and W. Norman Smith, Co-Executors of the Estate of J. Don Brock.

          John R. Branson, Memphis, Tennessee, for the amici curiae, Brenda Dattel Meece and Lisa Ann Dattel.

          Walter W. Bussart, Lewisburg, Tennessee, for the amicus curiae, David Edmundson Rackley.

          Albert W. Secor, Hixson, Tennessee, amicus curiae.

          Cornelia A. Clark, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Sharon G. Lee, Holly Kirby, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          CORNELIA A. CLARK, JUSTICE.

         I. Factual Background[1]

         Dr. J. Don Brock ("Dr. Brock"), a resident of Hamilton County, Tennessee, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in May 2012, and died on March 10, 2015, leaving a sizeable estate.[2] Dr. Brock was survived by his spouse, Mrs. Sammye Sprouse Brock ("Mrs. Brock"), by his seven children that he and his former wife adopted during their marriage of more than thirty years, five of whom were biological siblings, and by his two stepdaughters, Mrs. Brock's children from a prior marriage.

         On March 31, 2015, Dr. Brock's attorney filed a petition in the Chancery Court of Hamilton County ("Probate Court")[3] for testate administration of Dr. Brock's October 1, 2013 Will ("2013 Will"). In accordance with paragraph two of the 2013 Will, the Probate Court named Mrs. Brock and W. Norman Smith as co-executors of Dr. Brock's estate (collectively "Proponents"), and letters testamentary were issued to them on April 6, 2015.

         The 2013 Will divided Dr. Brock's estate ("Estate") among Mrs. Brock, Dr. Brock's stepdaughters, Christie Sprouse Gleeson and Devin LeAnn Sprouse, and Dr. Brock's eldest two children from his first marriage-Elizabeth Foster Brock and Benjamin Garrison Brock. The 2013 Will expressly excluded Dr. Brock's five other children from his first marriage-biological siblings Walter Edward Brock, Jennifer Rebecca Brock, Darryl William Brock, Melissa Sue Brock Adcock, and Krystal Gayle Brock Parker (collectively "Contestants"). As for the Contestants, the 2013 Will treated them as "having predeceased [Dr. Brock] without surviving descendants."

         On September 3, 2015, the Contestants filed a notice of will contest as to the 2013 Will, alleging improper execution or attestation, 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 2013 Will, alleging that Mrs. Brock had signed Dr. Brock's name for decades, having worked at Astec Industries as his receptionist and assistant for twenty years before their marriage in 1998. The Contestants further alleged that the attesting witnesses to the 2013 Will "were not disinterested witnesses" but were officers or employees of Astec Industries with a financial interest in the company. The Contestants pointed out that the first twenty-four pages of the 2013 Will were not signed or initialed, including the pages that disinherited the Contestants. The Contestants also averred that Dr. Brock lacked testamentary capacity, stating that the 2013 Will had purportedly been prepared and signed more than a year after Dr. Brock had been diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012 and after he had undergone aggressive treatments for the disease. Lastly, the Contestants alleged fraud and undue influence. The Contestants claimed that Mrs. Brock as well as Elizabeth and Benjamin Brock had confidential relationships with Dr. Brock and used their relationships to exert undue influence over him in the procurement of the 2013 Will. The Contestants claimed that Mrs. Brock had been Dr. Brock's mistress, receptionist, and assistant for approximately twenty-four years before their 1998 marriage. After the marriage, the Contestants claimed, Mrs. Brock acted to isolate Dr. Brock from the Contestants and interfere with their ability to see or speak with him. The Contestants alleged that Mrs. Brock had fraudulently conspired with her own daughters, with Benjamin and Elizabeth Brock, and ...


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