In Tennessee, a probate dispute is a conflict that occurs during the estate administration process. When the parties are unable to resolve the disagreement, it can lead to litigation that a probate court judge must resolve. Probate litigation can change the course of a probate proceeding as it can lengthen the process and delay asset distribution. It can also lead to added expense to the estate, resulting in fewer assets to distribute to beneficiaries and heirs. Probate litigation can even result in a change in beneficiaries and establish the right to receive an inheritance.
Note that in Tennessee, Chancery Courts have jurisdiction over probate matters. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-16-201. Regardless of the nature of the dispute, it must be resolved by the court that is handling the probate proceeding.
Will Challenge in Tennessee
A last will and testament is designed to memorialize the intent of the testator. It is a legally enforceable document and its directions must be followed. In order to make sure that a will is legitimate, it must be compliant with Tennessee law. If an “interested party” such as an heir suspects that the will is invalid or fraudulent, the law allows them to challenge it through a will contest.
Even though relatives, especially those who were left out of the will, may be upset with the terms of a will, being upset or disappointed is not sufficient to justify a will contest. The contestant must assert legal grounds. Examples of legal grounds include:
- Improper execution. Tennessee requires a will to be executed in a certain way. If the will was not signed by the testator or at the direction of the testator, and if the will was not witnessed by at least 2 people, it would not be valid. Tenn. Code Ann. § 32-4-104
- Lack of testamentary capacity. The testator must have been mentally competent and must have been at least 18 years old at the time that they executed the will. Tenn. Code Ann. § 32-1-102
- Undue influence. It is illegal to manipulate a vulnerable person into making a will that does not reflect the wishes of the testator, but of the manipulator.
- Duress. The testator only made the will because they were intimidated to do so by violence or the threats of violence.
- Will revoked. If the testator executed a later will, that would effectively revoke any prior wills. In addition, if the testator completed any act that would result in the revocation of the will, then it would be invalid. Tenn. Code Ann. § 31-2-201
If the contestant prevails, the court will not admit the will to probate. If the will has already been admitted to probate, the court will revoke probate. If there is a prior or later will that is valid, the court will probate that will. Otherwise, the court will declare the decedent to be intestate and the law of intestate succession will apply. Tenn. Code Ann. § 31-2-101
Fiduciary Litigation in Tennessee
When it comes to estates of decedents, there may be several fiduciaries including the personal representative, trustee, guardian, attorney, and accountant. A fiduciary is a person who is entrusted to care for the interests of someone else. They are required to perform their responsibilities with honesty and the utmost care. In the case of an estate of a decedent, the fiduciaries care for the interests of the beneficiaries and heirs of the estate.
Fiduciary litigation is initiated when a beneficiary, heir, or other interested party believes that a fiduciary has acted improperly. Common reasons for fiduciary litigation include:
- Disagreement over guardian appointment
- Objection to accounting
- Action to remove fiduciary
- Improper investment
- Unauthorized self-dealing
Determination of Heirship in Tennessee
Another type of dispute may occur if it is not clear as to who is entitled to inherit an intestate estate. If there are no close relatives such as surviving spouse or known children, purported relatives may come forward claiming the right to inherit. Before authorizing a distribution, the Probate Court my require the person to prove degree of consanguinity in order to prove their right to inherit under Tennessee’s rules of descent and distribution. Tenn. Code Ann. § 31-2-101 et seq.