In Tennessee, a last will and testament is supposed to reflect the intentions of the testator. If there is evidence that a will is not legitimate, the probate court will not probate it or will revoke probate. In Tennessee the Chancery Court serves as the probate court. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-16-201.
The validity of a will may be challenged by an interested party in a lawsuit called a will contest. Tenn. Code Ann. § 32-4-109. A will may be challenged for many reasons, including that the testator was not mentally competent at the time they executed the will, the will was made while the testator was under duress, the testator was subject to undue influence, or that the will was not executed in the manner required by Tennessee law.
Who Can Contest a Will in Tennessee
Under Tennessee law, a person must be an “interested” person in order to have the legal right to contest a will. In other words, the objectant must have a financial or legally enforceable interest that would be affected if the will is probated. Generally interested parties are limited to heirs and beneficiaries. The right cannot be delegated.
Process for Challenging a Will in Tennessee
With limited exceptions, a will contest must be initiated within 2 years from the time the will was admitted to probate. Tenn. Code Ann. § 32-4-108. To initiate a will contest, the contestant must file a notice of contest with the Probate Court that has jurisdiction over that matter. Tenn. Code Ann. § 32-4-109. The contestant may have to post a bond of $500. Tenn. Code Ann. § 32-4-101. Note that if the contest fails, the contestant is responsible for paying the costs associated with the lawsuit.
Grounds for Contesting a Will in Tennessee
The law does not allow a contestant to challenge a will merely because they were disinherited or were otherwise unhappy with its terms. The testator must allege legal grounds for the challenge, such as:
- Mentally incompetent. Tennessee law requires that a testator must have been “of sound mind” when the will was executed. This means that the testator must have been mentally competent.
- Lack of legal capacity. The minimum age for executing a will is 18. If the person who made the will was younger, the will would not be valid. Tenn. Code Ann. § 32-1-102
- Undue influence. Undue influence would be present in a situation where a testator is vulnerable due to illness, isolation, or other reasons and is manipulated by an unscrupulous person into making a will that benefited them. This is often the case when a testator relies on a family member or caregiver for care or companionship.
- Improper execution. For a will to be properly executed, Tennessee law requires that the testator sign the will. The will must also be signed by at least two witnesses who must sign it in the presence of the testator and in the presence of each other. Tenn. Code Ann. § 32-4-104
- Duress. Duress is present if someone uses violence or the threat of violence to force the testator to make a will that is favorable to the abuser.
Consequences of a Will Contest in Tennessee
If a will is determined to be invalid, the decedent’s estate would be distributed according to the terms of their prior valid will, if any. Otherwise, their estate would be distributed according to Tennessee’s law of intestate succession. Tenn. Code Ann. § 31-2-101
Under Tennessee law, where a person dies without a will, their assets are distributed to that person’s surviving spouse if there no surviving children. If there is a surviving spouse and children, they share in the estate with the percentage each gets being based on the number of children. If the decedent has neither a surviving spouse nor children, then the decedent’s parents share the assets equally. Next in line to inherit would be the decedent’s siblings. Tenn. Code Ann. § 31-2-101
Forfeiture Clause in a Tennessee Will
A “forfeiture clause” is a term in that provides that a testamentary gift will be forfeited or reduced if the beneficiary challenges the validity of the will. In Tennessee forfeiture clauses are enforceable if the will contest is not made in good faith. See Winningham v. Winningham, 966 S.W.2d 48 (Tenn. 1998).