The five adopted children of J. Don Brock, founder of a billion-dollar empire, are battling their stepmother over what they claim are her efforts to disinherit them. According to The Chattanooga Times Free Press article, “Tennessee Supreme Court agrees to hear J. Don Brock estate challenge,” Melissa Sue Brock Adcock, Krystal Gail Brock Parker, Jennifer Rebecca Brock, Daryl Williams Brock and Walter Edward Brock, were deliberately disinherited from their father’s will by his second wife.
The children’s two attorneys claim that J. Don Brock drew up different wills in 1994, 1998, and 2006 that excluded the children at different times. They argued that a 2012 draft and a 2013 final will don’t mention the children, because their father's former secretary and second wife Sammye wanted to preserve the "assets and reputation of Astec Industries."
However, that argument was dismissed since Hamilton County Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton applied a 110-year-old Tennessee Supreme Court decision in February 2016. He held that the children couldn't contest the 2013 will since they weren't included in the 2012 draft.
The ancient but still valid decision is known as the Cowan Rule, a focal point of the case. The five adopted children claim that the different wills show undue influence over time and argue that Cowan prevents them from getting those wills into evidence. It allows a "bad actor" to commit fraud. Sammye’s attorney argued that other state courts developed rules similar to Cowan to prevent people from holding estates “hostage” through litigation.
The attorneys named several Tennessee will cases that were impacted by Cowan in their brief to the Court of Appeals in Knoxville in 2016. In one case, a father disinherited several heirs from wills executed in 1997 and 1998. However, the contesting heirs showed the court three previous wills that left them each $10. Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals held that $10 wasn't a "substantial enough" interest.
The 2006 will shows J. Don Brock leaving $800,000 each to Melissa, Krystal, and Jennifer.
In another case centered on Cowan, a group of thirteen heirs challenged a will that did not include them by name, with the estate claiming that none of the thirteen had been included in any prior wills. These heirs responded that an earlier version of the will had left the estate to a trust that was not legally established. The Court of Appeals allowed them to challenge the will.
Reference: Times Free Press (March 21, 2017) “Tennessee Supreme Court agrees to hear J. Don Brock estate challenge”