Trust and Estate Counsel

Tennessee Estate Planning Law

Insight and commentary on estate planning issues impacting affluent residents of Tennessee

Contracts to Make a Will

In a recent case, Estate of Ina Ruth Brown, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the validity of a contract to execute Wills. These contracts are most often used in second marriages when at least one of the spouses has children from a prior marriage.

The contract typically works as follows: Each spouse agrees to bequeath certain property to the survivor with the understanding that the survivor will bequeath the property to the children of the first spouse to die following the survivor’s death.

Following the execution of the contract, the husband and wife each execute Wills which are consistent with the contract. After the first spouse dies, the children of the surviving spouse sometimes persuade the surviving spouse to change his/her Will in a way that totally disinherits the stepchildren. That is exactly what happened in the Brown case.

After Mrs. Brown died, her son probated her Will, which left everything to him.  Mr. Brown’s children filed a Will contest.  The children should have filed a claim for breach of contract against the estate of Mrs. Brown rather than a Will contest.  Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals granted to Mr. Brown’s children the property they were entitled to receive based upon the contract.  Even though Mr. Brown’s children were ultimately successful, it took them 8 years and significant legal fees to protect their rights.

Estate planning for spouses in second marriages is challenging. Each spouse wants to benefit their spouse and benefit their children from the prior marriage. The best solution is to transfer separate assets to the spouse and children upon the first spouse’s death. When there are not enough assets to take care of the spouse and the children, various approaches are used to enable the property to benefit the surviving spouse during his/her lifetime with the property to pass to the children upon the surviving spouse’s death. All of these techniques inevitably create tension between the stepparent and the stepchildren.

I have prepared contracts to make a Will for several couples, though only after investigating other solutions and with a warning to my clients that such contracts are a challenge to enforce by the children of the first spouse to die.