Five adopted children who say their stepmother maliciously removed them from the massive estate of late Astec Industries CEO J. Don Brock are heading to the highest Tennessee court to argue their case.
The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to hear whether Melissa Sue Brock Adcock, Krystal Gail Brock Parker, Jennifer Rebecca Brock, Daryl Williams Brock and Walter Edward Brock were purposely disinherited from their father's will when he died of mesothelioma in March 2015.
"It's no guarantee of success," said one of their attorneys, Jerry Summers, "but we're back in the ball game."
Summers and another attorney, Marya Schalk, say J. Don Brock drew up different wills in 1994, 1998 and 2006 that cut the children out at different times. In a 2012 draft and a 2013 final will, the childrens' names disappeared altogether because their father's former secretary and second wife, Sammye Brock, wanted to preserve the "assets and reputation of Astec Industries," they argued in a September 2015 lawsuit.
But that argument never got off the ground in Hamilton County, where Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton reluctantly applied a 110-year-old Tennessee Supreme Court decision in February 2016, saying the children couldn't contest the 2013 will since they weren't included in the 2012 draft.
That decision, known as the Cowan Rule, has been a central point of argument in the case. The five adopted children believe the different wills show undue influence over time. They say Cowan prevents them from getting those wills into evidence and allows a "bad actor" to commit fraud under the law.
Sammye Brock's attorney, Richard Bethea, has argued other state courts developed rules similar to Cowan to prevent people from holding estates hostage through litigation.
Summers and Schalk listed a handful of Tennessee will estate cases affected by Cowan in a brief to the Court of Appeals in Knoxville in 2016. In one, a father disinherited multiple contestants from wills executed in 1997 and 1998. The contestants then pointed to three previous wills that left them $10 apiece. But the Court of Appeals said $10 wasn't a "substantial enough" interest in 2004.
A copy of the 2006 will shows J. Don Brock left $800,000 apiece to Melissa, Krystal and Jennifer.
During a different contest, 13 heirs tried to challenge a will that never included them; the estate countered that none of the heirs were included in previous wills. But the heirs responded that an earlier version of the will left the estate to a trust that had not been legally established at the time. The Court of Appeals upheld the heirs' ability to challenge that will in 2000.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.