TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Typo In Father's Will Causes Bitter Dispute Between Three Minor Children And Christian School And Church

Tennessean, A Dying Man, A Typo and the Bitter Dispute Pitting 2 Nashville Religious Institutions Against 3 Children:

A dispute over an estate passed down through generations in one Tennessee family is pitting two Nashville Christian institutions in a bitter legal battle against three young children.

Nashville Christian School and Harpeth Presbyterian Church say they are two of the rightful beneficiaries to hundreds of acres of farmland and properties across Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee that have been in the Blackburn family since the War of 1812.

Joined by the University of Mississippi and a dog rescue organization, the four nonprofits are fighting to wrest the estate away from three children, ages 3, 8 and 13, who would be the sixth generation to inherit the family lands.

Much of the property, now worth millions, has been inherited by each succeeding generation since a Blackburn was granted the land by President Andrew Jackson in the 19th century. Gideon Blackburn, a preacher, founded Harpeth Presbyterian Church in 1811.

Barry Blackburn Sr., the last to inherit the land, died in 2014 at age 48. In his will, the properties were to be held in a lifetime trust for his son, Christopher, then pass to Christopher's children.

But in 2015, Christopher Blackburn died, childless, at age 21. That's when the estate got complicated.

The will, written during Barry Blackburn's dying days, said should his son die before him, the trust would pass to his sister's three children.

The will also said if there were no surviving beneficiaries of the estate, then it would be equally divided among Nashville Christian School, Harpeth Presbyterian Church, the University of Mississippi law school and Boykin Spaniel Rescue.

The charities were included only as part of a "failure of beneficiary" clause common in many wills to designate inheritors in rare instances when there are no living beneficiaries, the trustees of the estate said.

The nonprofits, however, have argued that the will, read literally, gives the family's property to them.

Had Barry Blackburn's son died before he did, the estate would have gone to the nieces and nephew, they said.

But since Blackburn's son died after him, the estate belongs to the nonprofits, not the children, they argued.

A Mississippi judge disagreed, siding with the children. 

Last year the judge ruled that the estate rightfully belonged to the surviving nieces and nephew. He concluded there had been a "scrivener's error," a simple and accidental clerical error that omitted two words from the will.

Barry Blackburn's intent, the court ruled, was to say if Christopher predeceased his father, "or died," the entirety of his estate would go to his nieces and nephew. He ordered the two words to be incorporated in the will. ...

Also complicating the dispute is the estate being contested by Christopher Blackburn's family. Barry Blackburn and Christopher Blackburn's mother divorced. But Christopher Blackburn's surviving relatives, including his aunt and mother, are now party to the dispute. An appeal of the judge's ruling has been filed by Christopher Blackburn's estate.

The nonprofits have joined the appeal of the ruling to the Mississippi Court of Appeals. ...

Thus far, only the attorneys have benefited from the estate, which has paid their legal fees. Lawyers for the nonprofits have been awarded approximately half a million dollars, according to Trip Barnes, a Mississippi-based attorney representing the estate's trustees. Those lawyers also have petitioned the court to order Blackburn's estate to pay their fees as they pursue an appeal against the ruling in favor of Lowry's children.

Lowry said the dispute is particularly tough because of the family's longstanding ties to the institutions vying for the estate.

https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2019/03/typo-in-fathers-will-causes-bitter-dispute-between-three-minor-children-and-christian-school-and-chu.html

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Comments

Is it standard that attorneys for a party challenging the executor who lose get paid by the estate?

Posted by: brad | Mar 14, 2019 1:10:55 PM

The takeaway is to never mention non-profits in your will unless it is your own private foundation.

Posted by: Dale Spradling | Mar 15, 2019 4:57:07 AM

Consult Charles Dickens and "Bleak House." See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jarndyce_and_Jarndyce

Posted by: Michael L. Wyland | Mar 15, 2019 6:41:33 AM

The trial court decision is obviously correct, even without resort to extrinsic evidence. The phrases "predecease the settlor" and "prior to complete distribution" are incompatible, and if the latter is to have any meaning at all, you have to delete the condition of predeceasing the settlor. The scrivener was a lawyer in the settlor's own office. Not a good look for the four charities. If one of these kids predeceases age 45, they will still get a piece.

Posted by: Russ Willis | Mar 15, 2019 3:44:43 PM

Tip: Lifetime gifts are more tax efficient than under a will. This is what Gates/Buffett et al do.

Posted by: Dale Spradling | Mar 16, 2019 8:29:43 AM

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