Five adopted siblings of the late Astec Industries CEO J. Don Brock will continue their estate battle in Hamilton County after the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in their favor earlier this week.
Justice Cornelia Clark chose not to apply a 110-year-old case that shut down the siblings' contest two times before, saying Wednesday that no court has ever determined which of J. Don Brock's wills are valid.
"A review of the facts reveals that the wills involved in [the 110-year-old case] had already been judicially determined to be valid," Clark wrote. "We therefore decline to perpetuate an erroneously broad interpretation."
Famous for launching the billion-dollar Astec Industries in 1972, J. Don Brock and his first wife adopted the five siblings in 1983. Over the years, Brock drew up wills in 1994, 1998 and 2006 that included the siblings, court records show. But in a 2012 draft and a 2013 final will, the siblings' names disappeared altogether. According to court records, the siblings didn't learn they were disinherited until Brock died from mesothelioma cancer in March 2015.
The siblings alleged their father's second wife and former secretary, Sammye Brock, teamed up with other family members and the estate's co-executor to ax them from a 2013 will. Sammye Brock wanted to preserve the "assets and reputation of Astec Industries," their attorneys argued in a lawsuit in September 2015.
But the siblings hit a substantial legal roadblock right away: A 1906 Tennessee Supreme Court decision called Cowan v. Walker, which attorneys and judges have used as precedent in numerous probate contests.
Cowan essentially said descendants couldn't contest an estate if they didn't receive anything from a previous will. For the siblings, it didn't matter if they were named in previous wills. They weren't included in the 2012 draft or 2013 final. Therefore, they didn't have standing.
Hamilton County Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton reluctantly applied that logic in February 2016 when he dismissed the siblings' contest, but added that Cowan "promotes the potential for fraud by simply creating two wills and [having] one insulate the other."
The Tennessee Court of Appeals took a similar stance when it rejected the sibling's arguments in November 2016. But one appeals judge encouraged the Tennessee Supreme Court to examine "their practical application" of Cowan in his opinion. The state's highest court agreed in March and heard arguments in September.
At this stage in the case, the siblings only needed to prove they would receive a share of their father's estate if Brock's challenged wills were set aside, Supreme Court Justice Clark wrote. And they had.
When a person dies without a valid will or other binding declaration, that's called intestacy. And under those laws in Tennessee, children inherit a portion of the estate.
But much will hinge on the 2013 will when the case returns to Hamilton County.
"If it is valid, then the other wills don't matter," said Richard Bethea, one of the attorneys representing the Brock estate. "Because the most recent will is the one that's got to be looked at first."
Jerry Summers, one of the siblings' lawyers, declined to comment but said he's interested in moving toward a jury trial.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.