You Have To Have A Dog In The Hunt

June 2nd, 2023  

In meeting with clients to discuss estate planning, I always explain that a person’s Will disposes of only a portion of the persons assets.  Jointly owned assets with another person with right of survivorship would pass by contract to the survivor. Also, there are many assets that  pass through beneficiary designation, such as IRA’s, 401k plans, life insurance, and annuities.

In the case of the Estate of Richadean Greer Wilson, the court dealt with a similar issue after the death of two spouses. In the Wilson case,  Mr. and Mrs. Wilson married in 1966. Mr. Wilson prepared a Will in 1982 that created a Testamentary Residual Trust that benefited his wife  and then went to the husband’s surviving nieces and nephews and the wife’s surviving nieces and nephews. Husband died in 1987. Wife  prepared a Will in 2014 providing for certain relatives. Wife died in 2016. After wife’s death, the remaining corpus in the testamentary trust  under husband’s Will was distributed in equal shares to the remainder beneficiaries.

Subsequently, two of the husband’s nieces filed a complaint in the wife’s estate seeking to set aside the probate of her 2014 Will and seeking  an accounting of the distribution of the testamentary trust assets from husband’s estate.

The court dismissed the complaint, finding that the  Plaintiff’s lacked “standing” in the wife’s estate case to bring their claims regarding the testamentary trust from the husband’s Will. The court explained that the Plaintiff’s were “strangers” to Mrs. Wilson’s estate, i.e., they lacked standing because they were neither beneficiaries under  a Will of the wife nor heirs at law of the wife entitled to take in the estate of the wife through intestate succession. The court explained that the testamentary trust under the husband’s Will was never part of the wife’s estate.  The probate court in the wife’s estate had no jurisdiction over assets that pass out of another estate.

Also, the court pointed out another aspect of dealing with assets passing at death. The courts stated that the Tennessee Supreme Court  previously has held that is not within the jurisdiction of the probate court to do anything with respect to the proceeds from a certificate of  deposit or checking account whose title devolved to others at the time of the testator’s death because of joint ownership with right of  survivorship.

In the Wilson case the court explained that the Plaintiff’s could have filed a Motion to Reopen the Husband’s Estate and filed their complaint  in that proceeding, but they did not do so. Alternatively, the Plaintiff’s could have filed a separate trust action altogether, but they did not do  so. The court said there were no set of facts that would entitle the Plaintiffs to relief in the wife’s estate because the testamentary trust and the accounts that were complained of were not assets to be probated in the wife’s estate.

My Comment: Individuals need to understand how assets pass at death and what rights they have in an estate proceeding. Sometimes there is relief that can be granted, but a person has to understand the legal process by which assets transfer at death to know how to bring any type  of proceeding. In other words, you have to have “standing,” which you can think of as having “a dog in the hunt.”

Yours very truly,
William C. Bell, Jr., Attorney at Law