Five disinherited adopted children of the late Chattanooga businessman J. Don Brock may share in his large estate after all.
After losing at the trial court and appeals court level, the plaintiffs won a victory at the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Justice Cornelia Clark ruled in favor of the adopted children and remanded the case to the trial court for settlement of the estate. The other four justices agreed.
Justice Clark said, "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 Oct. 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."
Attorney Jerry Summers had contended that five adopted children of Dr. Brock, wealthy longtime CEO of Astec Industries, do have standing to contest his will that left them out of his large estate.
The widow (and second wife) of Mr. Brock, Sammye Sprouse Brock, had asked that the will contest be dismissed, saying the plaintiffs do not have standing.
The will contest was brought by Walter Brock of Soddy Daisy, Darryl Brock of Soddy Daisy, Jennifer Brock of Rossville, Missy Brock Adcock of Soddy Daisy and Krissy Brock Parker of Hixson, who were omitted from the will.
Attorney John Lawrence earlier said the plaintiffs were not included in either of two wills made by Dr. Brock. Dr. Brock had several wills, and the one submitted for probate was signed Oct. 1, 2013. Dr. Brock died March 10, 2015, after battling cancer for the last three years of his life.
Attorney Summers said a successful challenge to the 2012 and 2013 wills "would leave three of the contestants with $800,000 under the 2006 will. A successful challenge to the 2006 will also would leave three of the contestants with a percentage of a very large estate. A successful challenge to the 1998 will would leave four of the contestants with a percentage of a very large estate. A successful challenge to the 1994 will may then provide for intestate succession or an even earlier will in which all five of the contestants are provided for."
He also said, "A successful challenge to the 2013 will, without any prior wills being submitted, would result in the contestants taking by intestacy. So on contestants' 'best day' they could be awarded a significant portion of J. Don Brock's estate."
Attorney Summers had asked Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton to certify the will contest and send the matter back to Circuit Court. It started in Probate Court, then was sent to Circuit, then back to Probate. Chancellor Atherton dismissed the suit, citing a lack of standing by the plaintiffs.
Dr. Brock and Sammye Brock at the time of his death had nine children between them from former marriages. The second Mrs. Brock was his longtime receptionist. They were married in 1998 after he was divorced from first wife, Lynne Williams Brock, after 31 years of marriage and Ms. Sprouse was divorced from her husband. Both of those divorces were in 1996.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that Lynne Brock would receive 45 percent of Astec stock and Dr. Brock get 55 percent.
Those getting bequests in the will were Christie, Devin and Ben Brock of Lookout Mountain and Elizabeth Brock of Harrison. The will says after the death of his current wife, Sammye, that the proceeds will be distributed 50 percent to Ben, who is a top official of Astec, and 16 and two-thirds each to the other three.
As grounds, the will contest alleges improper execution or attestation, lack of testamentary capacity, and fraud or undue influence.
The five children left out were adopted by Mr. Brock and Lynne Williams Brock in 1983, joining two other adopted children, Ben and Elizabeth.
Click here to read the opinion.