A recent Tennessee court of appeals case is a reminder that there are limits to how far the law on testator’s intent will take you.

Who inherits under the following scenario?

Decedent died in 2012. She left a will that contained a simple direction:

All the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, I give, devise and bequeath to my husband….

Decedent’s husband, however, had died 16 years earlier, and Decedent never updated her will. One of the assets of Decedent’s estate was a family farm. Two groups claimed entitlement to Decedent’s assets. Decedent’s children were on one side and Decedent’s step-children–i.e., her late husband’s children–were on the other.

Decedent’s will made no mention of the step-children. Moreover, Decedent’s children introduced extrinsic evidence that their mother had a tense relationship with her step-children and had no intention of benefiting them under her will. Tennessee cases are clear that the testator’s intent is paramount. Therefore, Decedent’s children should prevail, right?

Not so fast. A court must give effect to a testator’s intent unless it contravenes a rule of law or public policy. Unfortunately for Decedent’s children, there is a law that speaks to the situation in this case. T.C.A. § 32-3-105(a), commonly referred to as the Anti-Lapse Statute, states:

Whenever the devisee or legatee or any member of a class to which an immediate devise or bequest is made, dies before the testator, or is dead at the making of the will, leaving issue that survives the testator, the issue shall take the estate or interest devised or bequeathed that the devisee or legatee or the member of the class, as the case may be, would have taken, had that person survived the testator, unless a different disposition thereof is made or required by the will.

In other words, a bequest to a predeceased beneficiary passes to the beneficiary’s heirs absent a contrary direction in the will. In this case, Decedent failed to provide an alternate disposition.  Accordingly, the Tennessee Court of Appeals held that Decedent’s estate, including the family farm, passed to her husband’s children, rather than to her children.

In rendering its decision, the Court noted:

if the will in this case had specifically stated who would receive the residuary estate should [husband] predecease the Decedent, the anti-lapse statute would not be operative. Moreover, a “different disposition” is implicated when the will imposes a survivorship requirement on the named beneficiary. For example, had the will stated that [husband] would only receive the residuary estate if he survived the Decedent, the anti-lapse statute would not apply.

A slight change to the wording of the bequest would have reversed the outcome:

All the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, I give, devise and bequeath to my husband…, if he survives me.

Thus, for the lack of four words, Decedent’s children lost their inheritance. Always provide for an alternate disposition.

Source: In re Estate of Wanda Joyce Watkins, 2017 WL 3149610 (Tenn. Ct. App.)

Posted by Joel D. Roettger, JD, LLM, EPLS