In a recent divorce proceeding, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee addressed issues surrounding the separate and marital property of the parties, as well as the doctrine of transmutation. In Douglas v. Douglas (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2016), the husband appealed the lower court’s classification of a brokerage account as the wife’s separate property. The husband argued on appeal that the account was marital property, based on the doctrine of transmutation.notebook

In Douglas, the account at issue was funded solely by money that the wife inherited from her late father in 2010. Although the husband was not involved with the creation of the account, the wife established it as a joint account with a right of survivorship in both her husband’s and her names. The wife testified that she titled the account in both parties’ names for estate planning purposes and to avoid estate taxes. After establishing the account, the wife began withdrawing approximately $5,000 per month to support the family, make home improvements, and buy adjacent property. The husband did not make any deposits or withdrawals from the account. In 2012, the wife contacted the bank to remove her husband from the account and provided the necessary paperwork to her husband for his signature. After several weeks had passed, the parties’ daughter signed the husband’s name on the documents. The husband testified that he had no knowledge that he had been removed from the account until the parties separated in 2013.

Since Tennessee law distinguishes between separate property and marital property in divorce proceedings, the trial court must first classify the parties’ property as marital or separate. Generally, property that is acquired during the marriage is deemed marital property. Separate property is that acquired by gift, bequest, devise, or descent. Separate property can become marital property subject to division, however, through the doctrine of transmutation. In Tennessee, transmutation occurs when the parties treat separate property in a way that manifests an intention that the property become marital property. The party claiming that the separate property has been transmuted into marital property must prove that this has occurred.

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In a recent case involving a will contest, the Tennessee Court of Appeals determined whether a handwritten will, known as a holographic will, was valid. In In re Estate of Pierce (Tenn. Ct. App. July 22, 2016), the decedent was survived by five living children and one predeceased son with two adult children, the decedent’s grandchildren. During the administration of her estate, the decedent’s surviving children, the petitioners, filed a petition seeking to admit a purported holographic will to probate. Under the holographic will, two of the decedent’s grandchildren would not inherit.holographic will

The decedent had signed a document in 2007 bequeathing her assets to her living children and, if any of her children did not survive her, to that child’s children. In 2010, the decedent wrote by hand a purported holographic codicil to the 2007 document, in which, among other things, she clarified that her son was to receive her home. However, her son passed away 11 months before the decedent in 2013. Days before she died, the decedent completed a three-page document she had obtained from an attorney, titled “Confidential Estate Planning Questionnaire.” This document ran contrary to the 2007 and 2010 will and codicil in that it did not mention any distribution to her grandchildren. The issue on appeal was whether the 2007 and 2010 documents should be admitted to probate, and whether the 2013 purported holographic will served to revoke and replace those earlier documents, even if they were otherwise appropriate to be admitted to probate.

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In a recent Tennessee premises liability case, the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the defendants owed the plaintiff a duty after he was injured while voluntarily performing work on their property. In Reynolds v. Rich (Tenn. Ct. App. July 22, 2016), the plaintiff agreed to assist with the installation of a metal roof on the defendants’ house. During the installation, the plaintiff fell from the roof and suffered serious injuries, including skull fractures, a broken neck, shattered bones, and nerve damage to his face. Although no one knew what caused the plaintiff to fall from the roof, the plaintiff brought suit against the defendants for negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that the plaintiff was a volunteer worker rather than an employee of the defendants, and there was no evidence that the defendants violated a duty to the plaintiff.roofing accident

To establish a claim for negligence in Tennessee, a plaintiff is required to prove the following elements:  (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant falling below the standard of care, amounting to a breach of the duty; (3) an injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; and (5) proximate causation. In a premises liability case, a property owner has a duty to exercise reasonable care with regard to social guests or business invitees on the premises. The duty includes the responsibility to remove or warn against latent or hidden dangerous conditions on the premises of which the owner was aware, or should have been aware through the exercise of reasonable diligence.

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In some cases, couples sharing custody of their children may be faced with unexpected and difficult circumstances, such as the relocation of one of the parents. In McDonough v. McDonough (Tenn. Ct. App. May 26, 2016), the Court of Appeals of Tennessee decided a child custody issue involving a request by the father to relocate to Arizona with the parties’ three minor children. The father brought the appeal after the trial court denied his petition to relocate with the children and granted the mother primary residential custody.child custody

In McDonough, the parties divorced in 2012, and the mother was initially named as the primary residential parent, with the father granted 120 days per year with the children. In 2014, the trial court modified the permanent parenting plan and entered an order granting the parties equal parenting time with the children. The court also designated the father as the primary residential parent. The father subsequently received orders from the United States Army requiring him to relocate to Arizona. The father then filed a petition seeking to modify the permanent parenting plan to allow him to relocate with the children. The mother filed a response opposing the relocation. The trial court denied the father’s petition, granted the mother custody, and entered a new permanent parenting plan. On appeal, the father argued that the mother’s counter-petition was not filed timely, and because of this alleged error, the trial court erred in not allowing him to relocate with his children.

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The Court of Appeals of Tennessee recently made a decision in a premises liability case involving the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act. In Williams v. City of Jamestown (Tenn. Ct. App. June 23, 2016), the plaintiff slipped and fell on ice in the parking area of the county courthouse. Since the parking lot was owned by the city, the plaintiff filed suit against the city under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act. The trial court dismissed the claim, finding that the city did not breach a duty of care to the plaintiff, and even if there was a breach, the plaintiff was more than 50 percent at fault for his injuries. The plaintiff subsequently appealed to the higher court.slip and fall

In Williams, snowfall had accumulated up to six inches in the city of Jamestown on the day of the injury. City personnel had scraped and salted roads and parking lots on the night before and into the morning. When the plaintiff arrived at the courthouse, he observed that most of the parking lot was relatively clear of snow, with the exception of the north side of the building. However, the plaintiff parked in the area with remaining ice and snow because it had the only available space. As the plaintiff left the courthouse and walked toward his vehicle, someone spoke to him. When the plaintiff turned his gaze to the woman, he slipped on ice and fell, severely injuring his right wrist. The plaintiff brought suit against the city, which owned the parking lot.

In Tennessee, local governments have a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect individuals on their property from unreasonable risks of harm. Included within this duty is a duty to either remove dangerous conditions on their premises or to warn people about dangerous conditions of which the owner knows or should know. In the case of natural accumulations of snow and ice, property owners are expected to take reasonable steps to remove snow and ice within a reasonable time after it has formed or accumulated. Tennessee courts have previously held that what is reasonable depends upon many factors, including the length of time the accumulation has been present, the amount of the accumulation, whether the accumulation could be removed as a practical matter, the cost of removal, and the foreseeability of the injury.

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The Tennessee Court of Appeals decided a case in late June involving the interpretation of a marital dissolution agreement following the husband’s death. In Manning v. Manning (Tenn. Ct. App. June 30, 2016), the parties agreed to waive their interest in each other’s retirement accounts after their divorce. However, the husband failed to change the beneficiary designation. Upon the husband’s death, the wife refused to sign documentation waiving her right to the benefits, and the husband’s estate administrator filed suit. Following the trial court’s judgment in favor of the wife, the estate appealed.marital dissolution

In Manning, the parties divorced in 1999 after three years of marriage. A marital dissolution agreement was incorporated into the final decree of divorce, in which each party agreed to waive any interest he or she may have had in the other’s retirement. The agreement also provided that the wife agreed to waive any interest she may have had in the husband’s bank accounts, mutual funds, and certificates of deposit. When the husband died in 2013, the wife was still listed as the beneficiary to his retirement account. The estate sought a declaratory judgment from the court finding that the wife waived any interest in the account, pursuant to the parties’ marital dissolution agreement.

On appeal, the estate argued that the marital dissolution agreement controlled the distribution of the husband’s retirement account. The wife contended that, since the husband did not remove her designation as beneficiary, the dispute was a matter of contract between the husband and his retirement account administrator. As a result, she continued, the beneficiary designation could only be changed pursuant to the procedure designated in the retirement account contract.

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In an estate dispute involving a will contest, interested parties file a formal objection during the administration proceedings, challenging the validity of the decedent’s Last Will and Testament. In In re Estate of Dalton (Tenn. Ct. App. June 28, 2016), the Court of Appeals of Tennessee reviewed such a challenge by one of the decedent’s three adult children.

In Dalton, the executrix of the decedent’s estate sought approval from the trial court to distribute the decedent’s estate equally among his three children, claiming that it was in accordance with a settlement agreement entered into by the three siblings in 2009. However, one of the siblings challenged the distribution, claiming that the decedent had granted her an option to purchase his farm for the original purchase price. She further alleged that the written option agreement had been lost, but she produced affidavits of two witnesses who claimed to have knowledge of the agreement. The sibling also admitted that she had never exercised the option prior to the decedent’s death. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the executrix, finding that the siblings’ settlement agreement provided that they would not file suit to challenge the decedent’s will. When the sibling challenging the will would not execute documents to effectuate the sale of the farm, the trial court allowed the executrix to sell the property without approval from the heirs. The sibling then appealed that decision to the higher court.will contest

One of the issues on appeal was whether the settlement agreement was dispositive of the sibling’s claim regarding the farm. The sibling argued that the farm was not part of the decedent’s estate and therefore was not controlled by the settlement agreement. The appeals court disagreed, finding that even if the option existed, the farm would still be an asset of the decedent’s estate to be administered according to his will. The court cited Tennessee Code Annotated § 31–2–103, which provides that the real property of a testate decedent vests immediately upon his death to the beneficiaries named in the will, unless the will contains a specific provision directing that the real property be administered as part of the estate, subject to the control of the personal representative.

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The Court of Appeals of Tennessee recently issued a decision in a contentious estate dispute involving the terms of a decedent’s trust. In In re Estate of Bower (Tenn. Ct. App. June 8, 2016), the decedent died having executed a trust, the primary asset of which was a lake house. The trust had been established by the decedent and his previous wife in 1995. After his previous wife’s death, the decedent remarried in 2002. The parties subsequently executed a postnuptial agreement waiving their rights to each other’s estate. After the decedent’s death, his wife and surviving children disputed over whether the trust provided the decedent’s wife with $2,000 a month as well as her use of the lake dispute

Although the decedent’s estate was probated in Tennessee, the trust at issue required it to be construed under Florida law. As a result, the court of appeals applied Florida law, which provides that the intention of the decedent should be ascertained through consideration of all the provisions of the trust taken together. Similar to Tennessee law, when the terms of the trust are unambiguous, the court should not refer to outside evidence to interpret its meaning.

The terms of the trust provided that the decedent’s wife shall be paid $2,000 per month from the date of his death, which shall continue until she dies, remarries, or is qualified to receive Medicare benefits. Significantly, at the time of the decedent’s death, the wife had already reached Medicare eligibility age. Interpreting the plain meaning of the trust, the appeals court found that the unambiguous and ordinary meaning of the language was that the monthly payments terminated upon the wife reaching Medicare eligibility. The court further observed that although the result was harsh and potentially contrary to what the decedent intended, the plain language of the trust compelled the court to reach its decision.

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In many car accident cases, a plaintiff may still recover damages even if he or she is partially at fault for causing the collision. The Court of Appeals of Tennessee recently addressed the issue of comparative negligence in an appeal of a negligence claim arising out of a motor vehicle collision. In Bachar v. Partin (Tenn. Ct. App. May 27, 2016), the plaintiff alleged that the defendant failed to stop at a stop sign and drove his truck into the intersection, causing the plaintiff, who had the right-of-way, to swerve and collide with another automobile. The plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant, who was driving a truck, as well as his employer, who owned the truck. The defendant denied the allegations of negligence and raised the defense of comparative fault on the part of the plaintiff.

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After a two-day trial, the jury returned a verdict finding the plaintiff to be 40 percent at fault and the defendant to be 60 percent at fault. The damages were assessed at $333,000. Accordingly, the trial court awarded damages to the plaintiff in the amount of $199,800. The defendant subsequently appealed, arguing that the evidence did not support the jury verdict on liability, apportionment of fault, or the plaintiff’s loss of earning capacity.

In Tennessee, a plaintiff may collect damages as long as a judge or jury determines that the plaintiff’s fault for the injury is 49 percent or less. If a judge or jury finds that the plaintiff’s percentage of liability is 50 percent or more, the plaintiff will be barred from recovering any damages. However, if the plaintiff is 49 percent or less at fault, the plaintiff’s damages will be reduced proportionately by the percentage of his or her fault.

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The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently ruled on several issues presented in a divorce case, particularly an award of alimony to the wife. In Hopwood v. Hopwood (Tenn. Ct. App. June 23, 2016), the parties were married for 14 years and had four children at the time of the divorce. The trial court granted the wife a divorce on the grounds of inappropriate marital conduct and designated her primary residential parent of the children. After considering several factors, including the husband’s ability to pay, the wife’s needs, and her role as caregiver during the marriage, the trial court also awarded the wife rehabilitative alimony of $2,500.00 per month for 15 years. The husband appealed, contending that the trial court erred in determining the amount and duration of alimony.spousal support

Currently, Tennessee law recognizes four types of spousal support:  (1) alimony in futuro, (2) alimony in solido, (3) rehabilitative alimony, and (4) transitional alimony. Rehabilitative alimony is alimony intended to assist an economically disadvantaged spouse in acquiring additional education or training that will enable him or her to achieve a standard of living comparable to the standard of living that existed during the marriage, or the post-divorce standard of living expected to be available to the other spouse.

In order to determine whether to award alimony and, if so, the amount and duration of the award, the court is directed by statute to consider several factors, including the age, mental condition, and physical health of the parties, the length of the marriage, the parties’ relative earning capacities, the separate assets of the parties, the provisions made with regard to marital property, and the standard of living the parties enjoyed during the marriage. Although the trial court should consider all relevant factors, the most significant two are the disadvantaged spouse’s need and the obligor spouse’s ability to pay.

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