In re Estate of Price

Decision Date24 March 2008
Docket NumberNo. M2007-01874-SC-R11-CD.,M2007-01874-SC-R11-CD.
Citation273 S.W.3d 113
PartiesIn re ESTATE OF Helen B. PRICE.
CourtTennessee Court of Appeals

D. MICHAEL SWINEY, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which HERSCHEL P. FRANKS, P.J., and SHARON G. LEE, J., joined.

Decedent died testate, leaving her entire estate to her sole surviving child, and leaving nothing to the man she had lived with for more than forty years, William G. Fenner, Sr. Mr. Fenner and all but one of decedent's grandchildren filed an action to invalidate the will on the basis of undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity. In the alternative, plaintiffs alleged that decedent and Mr. Fenner were partners and her assets were assets of the partnership, to which he is entitled to half. Plaintiffs also requested that the Trial Court impose a trust upon decedent's estate for the benefit and use of Mr. Fenner. Following two hearings on these issues, the Trial Court dismissed all of plaintiffs' claims and upheld the validity of decedent's will. Plaintiffs appeal, raising issues regarding undue influence, testamentary capacity, implied partnership, imposition of a resulting trust, defendant's failure to testify at the second hearing, and the Trial Court's dismissal of portions of plaintiffs' claims pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 41.02 motions by defendant. We find no error on the part of the Trial Court, and, therefore, affirm.

I. Background

This is an action to contest the validity of a will and to recover property allegedly held by the decedent as partnership assets. Ms. Price died on September 7, 2005, at the age of 83. Before we discuss the circumstances surrounding the execution of Ms. Price's will, it will be helpful to summarize Ms. Price's family situation.

Ms. Price was the mother of four children, three of whom predeceased her. Barbara Joan Price Fenner Summerow died in 2001, leaving five children: William G. Fenner, Jr., Terry Fenner, Kathy Fenner Melton, Connie Fenner Gray, and Willie Jo Perry. Charles Price died in 1967 and was survived by his four children: Chucky Price, Charles David Price, Kathy Price Lyon, and Chris Price. Joe Bob Price died in 1966, leaving one son, Charles Dean Price.1 Ms. Price's sole surviving child is Helen Sue Ludrosky ("Ms. Ludrosky" or "Defendant").

Ms. Price's daughter, Ms. Summerow, was married to the plaintiff, William G. Fenner, Sr. ("Mr.Fenner"). They divorced in 1966, and Mr. Fenner was awarded custody of the parties' four children. Later that year, Mr. Fenner moved in with Ms. Price and her youngest daughter, Ms. Ludrosky, who was born in 1956. Mr. Fenner and Ms. Price began living together so that Ms. Price could assist Mr. Fenner in raising his children, Ms. Price's grandchildren. The couple also raised Ms. Summerow's fifth child, Willie Jo Perry, who was born four years after Ms. Summerow's divorce from Mr. Fenner. Years later, Ms. Price and Mr. Fenner also took care of Ms. Ludrosky's two children, Martha Reyes and Joey Lowman.

During her relationship with Mr. Fenner, Ms. Price was a stay-at-home mother. Mr. Fenner provided for their family by installing and refinishing bowling lanes. Mr. Fenner traveled across the United States and to other countries performing his work, earning between $200,000 and $400,000 some years. Shortly after Ms. Price and Mr. Fenner began cohabiting, they purchased property on State Line Road in Elizabethton ("the State Line Road Property"). Over the next five years, Mr. Fenner constructed a house on the property, and the couple and the children moved to the new residence in 1972. Later, Mr. Fenner and Ms. Price purchased an adjacent lot upon which Mr. Fenner built a warehouse for use in his bowling alley refinishing business. The couple also owned property on Birch Street in Elizabethton ("the Birch Street Property"), which was purchased by Ms. Price and Mr. Fenner as tenants in common. In the mid-1980s, Mr. Fenner executed warranty deeds conveying his one-half interest in the State Line Road and Birch Street properties to Ms. Price. The couple purchased and then sold several other properties, but the only two real properties in the estate at the time of Ms. Price's death were the State Line Road Property and the Birch Street Property.

On June 7, 2005, Ms. Price executed a will devising all of her belongings to her daughter, Ms. Ludrosky, and leaving nothing to Mr. Fenner. Ms. Ludrosky assisted her mother in finding an attorney to draft the will. Ms. Ludrosky was present with Ms. Price at the attorney's office when the "Last Will and Testament of Helen B. Price" ("the Will") was drafted and executed. During the same attorney visit, Ms. Price executed two powers of attorney naming Ms. Ludrosky as her attorney-in-fact for general and health care matters. Mr. Fenner and the rest of Ms. Price's family were unaware of the Will. Later that same day, Ms. Price was admitted to the hospital. She underwent open heart surgery approximately one week later. After staying at a nursing home for three weeks to recover from the operation, Ms. Price stayed at Ms. Ludrosky's home for two weeks and then returned to her house on State Line Road. Ms. Price died on September 7, 2005, from complications resulting from a broken hip sustained during a fall.

Three weeks after Ms. Price's death, Ms. Ludrosky filed a petition to admit the Will to probate in the Chancery Court of Carter County, Tennessee ("the Trial Court"). The Trial Court entered an order admitting the Will to probate and appointing Ms. Ludrosky executrix of Ms. Price's estate, in accordance with the terms of the Will.

Approximately one week later, the attorney for the Estate of Helen B. Price ("the Estate") mailed a letter to Mr. Fenner directing him to vacate the State Line Road Property where he and Ms. Price had lived. The letter further stated that Mr. Fenner could move into the house on the Birch Street Property.

On October 20, 2005, Mr. Fenner and all but one of Ms. Price's grandchildren (collectively "Plaintiffs")2 filed a Complaint to Set Aside Last Will and Testament and to Declare Ownership of Assets ("the Complaint"). Plaintiffs alleged that Ms. Price was not competent to execute the Will on June 7, 2005, and that Ms. Ludrosky unduly influenced Ms. Price to make the Will with Ms. Ludrosky as the sole beneficiary. Plaintiffs also asserted that:

Helen B. Price held all assets titled in her name in trust for the use and benefit of William G. Fenner, Sr., and Helen B. Price, that William G. Fenner, Sr., is the equitable owner of all of the assets titled in the name of Helen B. Price, that William G. Fenner should be awarded legal title to same, that Helen Sue Ludrosky has contributed nothing to the acquisition of these assets and that Helen Sue Ludrosky will be unjustly enriched if these assets are held to be assets of the Estate of Helen B. Price.

In the alternative, Plaintiffs alleged that a partnership existed between Ms. Price and Mr. Fenner and that "all assets titled in the name of Helen B. Price are partnership assets."

Ms. Price's plaintiff grandchildren assigned their interest in Ms. Price's estate to Mr. Fenner, as stated in the Complaint:

All of the other Plaintiffs acknowledge that William G. Fenner, Sr., is entitled to all of the right, title and interest of all the real and personal property titled in the name of Helen B. Price and to all the assets of her Estate, and said Plaintiffs hereby assign all of their right, title and interest in and to same to William G. Fenner, Sr.

The Trial Court bifurcated the trial on the issues raised by Plaintiffs. On March 29 and 30, 2006, the Trial Court heard evidence regarding Ms. Price's competency to execute the Will and the alleged undue influence exerted by Ms. Ludrosky in persuading Ms. Price to devise her Estate to Ms. Ludrosky. At the close of Plaintiffs' proof, Ms. Ludrosky moved for involuntary dismissal of Plaintiffs' competency and undue influence claims pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 41.02.3 The Trial Court granted Ms. Ludrosky's motion as to the undue influence claim and denied the motion on the issue of Ms. Price's competency to execute her Will. After hearing Ms. Ludrosky's evidence, the Trial Court ruled that Ms. Price was competent to execute her Will on June 7, 2005, and upheld the validity of the Will.

The second hearing was held on January 22 and 23, 2007, regarding the partnership and trust issues. At the close of Plaintiffs' proof, Ms. Ludrosky again moved for a directed verdict on all issues. The Trial Court granted a directed verdict for Ms. Ludrosky on the partnership issue, finding that Plaintiffs had failed to prove an implied partnership between Ms. Price and Mr. Fenner. The Trial Court reserved ruling on the trust issue until the close of all proof. After all the proof was presented, the Trial Court held that Plaintiffs had not met their necessary burden to show that an equitable trust in favor of Mr. Fenner should be found and dismissed Plaintiffs' Complaint. The Trial Court also found that Mr. Fenner owned the equipment and supplies from his bowling-lane business. Plaintiffs appeal.

II. Discussion

Plaintiffs present six issues for our review, which we restate as follows:

1. Whether the Trial Court erred by finding that the "Last Will and Testament of Helen B. Price" executed on June 7, 2005, was not invalid because of undue influence by Ms. Ludrosky in procuring Ms. Price's execution of this document.

2. Whether the Trial Court erred by finding that Ms. Price was...

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