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In this staff file photo, J. Don Brock, right, and his son, Ben, stand near a piece of machinery manufactured by their company, Astec Industries, in Chattanooga.
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J. Don Brock

When five adopted children of the late Astec Industries CEO J. Don Brock contested his will in September, they claimed their stepmother conspired to remove them from the massive family estate.

But this week, a Hamilton County judge disagreed with them.

During a hearing Wednesday, Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton dismissed the adopted children's lawsuit, saying they didn't have standing to contest the 2013 will because they don't receive anything from a previous will. He declined to comment further Thursday.

"The objection made by the contestants is they were disinherited in Dr. Brock's 2013 will," said attorney Richard Bethea, who defended the asphalt-equipment manufacturer's estate. "That is true, they were, but they were also disinherited in Dr. Brock's 2012 will."

Bethea said a line of cases that began with a 1906 Tennessee Supreme Court decision, Cowan v. Walker, justify this ruling in numerous instances, the most recent being 2014.

"We call it the Cowan rule," he said.

Although the Supreme Court decision is confusing, it essentially means the five adopted children have no standing to contest the second will (2013) because they don't gain anything from the first (2012).

But that's where the children's attorneys, Jerry Summers and Marya Schalk, disagree and plan to appeal.

"How do we challenge the standing if we can't get the court to look at any wills beyond 2012?" Schalk asked Thursday.

Brock created numerous wills over the years that exclude the children at different times, according to the exhibits Summers filed in Chancery Court.

In 1994, one of the five adopted children, Walter Brock, is excluded. In 1998, Darryl Brock joins him. The 2006 will is the same, but also leaves Jennifer, Melissa and Krystal Brock with $800,000 apiece. In 2012 and 2013, they are all excluded.

Schalk and Summers plan to appeal the ruling because the previous wills show the undue influence and how the children get less and less each time, Schalk said.

Bethea said the two children who were disinherited entirely from earlier wills — Walter and Darryl Brock — support the futile will contest ruling because they never gained anything, no matter how many wills back.

"The ultimate thrust in their argument was, we don't like the Tennessee rule," Bethea contended.

In September, the five adopted children filed a lawsuit saying they were unaware they'd been disinherited from their father's will until after his death. Shipped in the mail, their copies were never delivered by hand. Walter Brock's notice never arrived, their lawsuit alleged.

The siblings listed three contested grounds — the first being the authenticity of their father's signature. The only witnesses present for the will signing were Astec Industries employees or officers who had a financial interest in the company, the suit said.

The five siblings allege Sammye Brock, their father's second wife and former secretary, teamed up with two of her children from a previous marriage, Brock's other adopted children, and Norman Smith, a co-executor, to remove them from the 2013 will. These four children were included in the will, records show.

The scheme ultimately worked, the children allege in their lawsuit, because Brock's intense cancer treatments compromised his mental and physical capacities.

The appeal process will start after Atherton approves the proposed order that Bethea must file in the Clerk and Master's Office.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347 with story ideas or tips. Follow @zackpeterson918.

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