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Tennessee Inheritance Laws

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According to CNBC, 67% of Americans — including those in Tennessee — do not have an estate plan or will. In the event of their passing, their loved ones can be placed in a difficult situation if disputes regarding their estate occur.

To help individuals in the state avoid disputes and other inheritance-related issues in the future, relevant details are laid out in this article. These include a summary of inheritance laws in Tennessee and a guide on creating a legally binding will. It also tackles the inheritance rights of a decedent’s surviving family, including their spouse, children, parents, and siblings, whether or not they leave a will.

What Happens if Someone Dies With a Will in Tennessee?

What Makes a Will Valid

"In Tennessee, you must be at least 18 years old and mentally competent to create a valid will. For a testator’s will to be valid, it needs to be:

  • In writing.

  • Signed by them.

  • Witnessed and signed by at least two people who are not heirs of the will.

In addition to a regular typewritten will, there are two more recognized kinds of wills in the state:

  • Holographic (handwritten) wills: Recognized if relevant clauses and the testator’s signature are handwritten by the testator and verified by two witnesses.

  • Nuncupative (oral) wills: Recognized if the testator faces an immediate danger of death and will pass away as a result of that danger.

Drafting a legitimate will is essential for one to have total authority over the distribution of their belongings after their passing. In line with this, several steps can be taken to avoid possible disagreements over a will’s provisions when it is being carried out:

  • Employing an estate planning lawyer to assist with the will’s creation.

  • Adding a no-contest provision in the will to establish that any relative who challenges it is not going to receive anything if they lose their petition.

  • Having a preliminary meeting with an heir to clarify their inheritance.

Executing a Will

Executor of a Will

The executor — or personal representative — is typically named in a decedent’s will as the individual responsible for managing their assets after they die. This means the executor has to carry out the instructions contained in the document.

The Probate Process

In Tennessee, most estates must go through probate to ensure that a decedent's will is executed properly. In this procedure, the general duties that an executor must perform are indicated in the table below:

Filing a probate petition

The executor must reach out to the probate court where the decedent was a permanent resident. They should officially apply to be the estate’s executor and submit the will and other necessary documents.

Notifying the heirs of the estate

The executor must identify and notify the beneficiaries listed in the will. They must also make an inventory of the decedent’s assets within 60 days. If the decedent employed a financial planner or an estate planning lawyer to organize their assets, the executor may contact those individuals.

Creating an estate account

The executor must open a bank account under the estate’s name. The decedent’s fund may be held in this account and used to settle debts.

Maintaining thorough documentation

The executor must maintain accurate records of all actions performed on behalf of the estate.

Distributing assets

Following the payment of debts, the executor must distribute the remaining assets to the beneficiaries following the terms of the will.

Note that there is no strict deadline for beginning the probate process. The executor must also remain in constant communication with the probate court right from the start to the completion of the estate’s administration.

Non-probate Assets

Some types of assets are not required to go through the probate process, including:

  • Properties co-owned with another person.

  • Life insurance policies.

  • Retirement funds with named beneficiaries.

  • Transfer-on-death accounts.

Contesting a Will

Contesting a will in Tennessee implies questioning the content of the document. The burden of proof passes on to the contestant, often referred to as the caveator, when they challenge the will’s validity.

However, not every person can oppose a will. In Tennessee, a person can only challenge a will if they are an interested party. Interested parties include:

  • Beneficiaries from a previous will.

  • Beneficiaries of the present will.

  • Anyone who, if the existing will is declared invalid, would have inherited a share under intestacy law.

  • Creditors who have an estate claim.

There are several legal reasons to challenge a will in Tennessee, including:

  • Inaccurate will creation: When a will is not created based on state guidelines.

  • Fraud: When someone is tricked into thinking they are signing a different document or signing a will with a different provision.

  • Undue influence on the testator: When a testator is coerced or frightened into signing a will.

  • Inadequate mental capacity: When the testator does not understand the purpose and implications of their will and the amount of property to be distributed upon their death.

A contestant's chances of success will increase depending on the strength of their evidence. Some examples of reliable proof that they can use based on the situation are as follows:

  • Documents, such as affidavits and witness statements, that demonstrate that the will was not correctly signed and witnessed in compliance with Tennessee law.

  • A handwriting study that proves that the signature of the testator was fake.

  • Eyewitness testimony or documents that prove that the testator was forced or under duress when making their will.

  • Expert testimony or medical documents that show that the testator was not of sound mind at the time of drafting their will.

To contest a will, an individual must file a case with the probate court in the county where the testator resided. There is a two-year statute of limitations for doing so, which means contesting a will as soon as possible with a probate lawyer’s help is recommended. The given timeframe usually starts upon the testator’s passing.

What Happens if Someone Dies Without a Will in Tennessee?

In Tennessee, if a person dies without a will, their estate is considered intestate, and intestate succession laws determine how their assets will be divided. Typically, their estate will be split into three categories:

  • Private property: The only kind of property subject to intestate probate is property owned exclusively by the person who passed away.

  • Shared assets: Any asset owned in partnership with a spouse, domestic partner, or any other party will not go into probate and will transfer instantly to the surviving co-owner under Tennessee’s survivorship laws.

  • Property held in trust: Assets previously transferred into a trust with a designated beneficiary do not have to go through probate. Examples include a 401(k) or other pension fund accounts with named beneficiaries.

When an individual passes away without a will, the probate court manages their inheritance similarly to how it would if the decedent left a valid will. However, if the deceased did not name an executor, an heir may ask the court to appoint them as the estate's administrator.

Spousal Rights

In Tennessee, the elective community property system governs a surviving spouse’s inheritance rights. Under this law, the surviving spouse will inherit the entire estate if the deceased has no living children or grandchildren. On the other hand, if the decedent had at least one living descendant, they and the surviving spouse would receive an equal share of the intestate property, with the spouse’s share not going below one-third of the entire estate.

Spouses may also choose to create a community property trust under the elective community property system. The property specified in the trust documents will be recognized as community property, in accordance with the couple's wishes. Therefore, all assets not included in the trust will remain private property. Because spouses can be named as trustees, the trust will ensure that the assets are always under the control of the surviving spouse.

Children’s Rights

Children in Tennessee will inherit a portion of their deceased parent’s intestate property if they are regarded as legitimate children under the law. Their inheritance rights are as follows:

Biological children

They will automatically receive a share.

Adopted children

Just like biological children, they will also automatically receive a share.

Grandchildren

Grandchildren will only receive a share if their parent, who is the decedent's child, has predeceased the decedent.

Children conceived outside of marriage

They will only receive a share if the decedent’s paternity was established before their death or if the decedent took part in a marriage ceremony that was voided later on.

Posthumous offsprings

Posthumous children, conceived before the decedent's passing but born after, will only inherit a share if they survive for at least 120 hours after birth.

Stepchildren and foster children

Stepchildren and foster kids that the decedent never formally adopted will not automatically get a portion of the intestate property.

Children given up for adoption

Children put up for adoption and lawfully adopted by another family will not automatically receive a share unless the decedent’s spouse adopted them.

The Rights of Other Surviving Relatives

The following order of inheritance will apply to the decedent’s intestate property under the inheritance rules of Tennessee if they were single and had no spouse or children.

With living parents but no spouse or kids

The entire estate will be given to them.

With one living parent and siblings

The single parent receives half of the estate and the remaining half will be divided equally among the siblings.

No living parents and siblings

The estate will be divided equally among the nephews and nieces.

No living parents, siblings, nephews, and nieces

The estate will be divided equally among the decedent’s maternal and paternal grandparents.

No living parents, siblings, nephews, nieces, and grandparents

The estate will be divided equally among the decedent’s maternal and paternal aunts and uncles.

Estates With No Heirs

If a decedent leaves no will and has no surviving relatives, their assets will pass into the hands of the state. However, this case is extremely uncommon since Tennessee laws are set up to give intestate property to any individual even slightly related to a deceased person.

Unique Situations in Tennessee Inheritance Law

Tennessee’s intestate succession laws also include specific provisions for particular circumstances:

  • Immigrants: A relative of the deceased will inherit a piece of the intestate property, whether they are in the country legally or not.

  • Killer rule: If an heir kills the deceased on purpose or with malicious intent, they will not be entitled to receive a portion of the estate.

  • Parents with overdue child support: A parent who is late on their child support payments will not inherit a share of their child’s estate if the latter dies. This is unless all outstanding payments, including any accrued interests, have been settled.

  • Posthumous family members: Similar to posthumous offsprings, other relatives conceived prior to the death of the deceased but born afterwards will be entitled to a portion of the intestate property.

  • Half-relatives: Half-siblings have the same inheritance rights as the deceased person's full siblings.

  • Gifts. If the decedent gifted a property to a relative while they were still alive, the value of the gift will be deducted from the relative’s share if both of them acknowledged it in writing.

Does Tennessee Impose Inheritance and Estate Taxes?

After December 31, 2015, Tennessee no longer collects inheritance taxes from those who inherit a share from a deceased person’s estate. However, if an estate is worth over $12.92 million (for single people) or $25.84 million (for married couples), a federal estate tax may be due.

If an estate is liable to pay the federal estate tax, the executor or administrator is usually the one in charge of paying it. They may also have to deal with the last individual state and federal income tax returns of the decedent, which are both due the year after the decedent’s death.

Legal Resources Related to Inheritance Law in Tennessee

Tennessee Bar Association

The Tennessee Bar Association has a directory of attorneys licensed to practice law in the state. Through its lawyer referral program, people with probate-related concerns can contact the organization through the following numbers to connect with lawyers in their area:

  • Nashville: 615-242-6546

  • Knoxville: 865-522-7501

  • Chattanooga: 423-266-5950

  • Memphis: 800-372-8346

The association also deals with potential lawyer misconduct. Victims can get assistance by reaching out to the Board of Professional Responsibility via phone at 615-361-7500 or 800-486-5714, via email at thics@tbpr.org, or in person at 10 Cadillac Drive, Suite 220, Brentwood, TN 37027.

Memphis Area Legal Services

Locals of Western Tennessee can contact the Memphis Area Legal Services when it comes to civil legal counsel involving probate matters. To qualify for its services, one must be from a low-income household. MALS does not charge for the services it provides, but clients have to pay or reimburse the organization for court-related fees. Call any of the following numbers to reach a MALS branch:

  • Memphis Fair Housing Center: 901-432-4663

  • Rural Service Office: 901-523-8822 or 888-207-6386

  • Memphis Service Office: 901-523-8822 or 866-361-9001

Legal Aid of East Tennessee

The Legal Aid of East Tennessee offers free civil legal assistance to those who are in need, including low-income families, the elderly, and victims of domestic abuse. It offers assistance in a wide range of practice areas, such as inheritance and family law. Clients must be citizens of the U.S. or have legal residency in the country to be eligible for its services. For inquiries, you may call the office near you:

  • Chattanooga: 423-756-4013 or 800-572-7457

  • Cleveland: 423-303-2266 or 800-572-7457

  • Johnson City: 423-928-8311 or 800-821-1312

  • Morristown: 423-587-4850 or 800-821-1309

  • Knoxville: 865-637-0484

  • Maryville: 865-981-1818

West Tennessee Legal Services

West Tennessee residents can receive free civil legal aid from West Tennessee Legal Services. One of the practice areas it prioritizes is elder law, helping senior citizens deal with their dead relatives' estates, their own properties, and their disabilities. Occasionally, it conducts seminars on estate planning, wills, and probate. For more information about the group's services, call 731-423-0616 or 800-372-8346.

Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands

The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands is the biggest nonprofit law firm in Tennessee. It defends the legal rights of low-income and vulnerable individuals to secure their fundamental needs in life. It also provides free legal advice through its legal aid clinics, allowing them to speak with a lawyer about their legal concerns, including those related to inheritance law. If you have inquiries, you may reach out to the group by calling 615-244-6610 or visiting its office at 1321 Murfreesboro Pike, Suite 400, Nashville, TN 37217.

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