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Handwriting Expert’s Testimony Supported Forgery Claim Regarding Life Insurance Proceeds

In Estate of Hargett v. Brown (Tenn. App. 6/9/2023), the Decedent, Willie Hargett, had separated from his wife, Robbie Hargett. Despite the separation, there was no divorce. After the separation, Mr. Brown entered into a relationship with Charlotte Brown. The Decedent had legal documents prepared after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He sought to have a $250,000 life insurance policy reinstated and it was approved. He named long-time friend, John Towe as primary beneficiary and Ms. Brown as secondary beneficiary. The Decedent orally instructed Mr. Towe to pay off his debt with the policy proceeds and to distribute the remainder to his daughter and her child.

Shortly before the Decedent passed, new beneficiary forms were submitted naming Ms. Brown as primary beneficiary. After Mr. Brown died, his wife and daughter opened an estate, sought a restraining order and detainer warrant regarding the lie insurance proceeds and sued Ms. Brown. The suit alleged that the form naming Ms. Brown as primary beneficiary was a forgery, that she converted (stole) $3,500 from an account and that she converted or damaged personal property that was in Mr. Brown’s home.

At trial, a handwriting expert testified that the last beneficiary forms naming Ms. Brown as primary beneficiary were not authentic. On cross examination, Ms. Brown’s attorney tried to have the expert compare other signatures and offer an opinion. When the expert stated it was not professional to makes assumptions without a complete analysis, the trial court refused to allow questions requiring the expert to formulate an opinion on the fly.

Ultimately, the trial court ruled in favor of the wife and daughter, finding the insurance beneficiary form naming Ms. Brown as primary beneficiary was a forgery. It also ruled that Ms. Brown was responsible tor the conversion of, or damage to, personal property and that she must repay the $3,500 taken from the account. In making this last finding, the Court found there was a confidential relationship between Ms. Brown and the Decedent even though that issue was not in the pleadings.

On appeal, Ms. brown argued that the handwriting expert’s testimony should have been excluded because her cross examination was restricted and that the expert’s opinion was insufficient. The Court of Appeals rejected both arguments. First, citing Daubert and Tennessee precedent, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court is the gatekeeper when ruling on the admissibility of expert testimony. The trial court determines whether the expert is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education to offer opinions that assist the trier of fact. The trial court determines whether the facts and data adequately support the expert’s conclusion. If the testimony is admitted, then any deficiencies in the expert’s theory, methodology, or application may be explored on cross-examination. Here, the trial court allowed the expert’s testimony. Once allowed, the trial court also had authority to limit attempts to force an on-the-fly opinion since that opinion would have been unreliable. The Court of Appeals noted that Ms. Brown could have used discovery regarding the expert’s opinion, but did not. Thus there was no abuse of discretion in allowing the expert opinion.

Regarding sufficiency of the evidence, the weight, faith and credit to be given to any witness’s testimony lies in the first instance with the trier of fact. The credibility accorded by the trier of fact is given great weight on appeal. “Here, the trial court was presented with a handwriting expert with decades of experience and court appearances, including some before the trial court itself. The trial court was able to visually compare the October 2018 beneficiary-designation forms to other documents with Decedent’s signature, including those documents with which Appellant attempted to impeach Ms. Pearce’s opinion. As Appellant points out, the trial court was made aware of the health of Decedent prior to his death, the other documents signed by Decedent on the same date as the most recent contested form, and the falling out between Mr. Towe and Decedent. Indeed, the trial court heard testimony from numerous witnesses with varying levels of self-interest in the outcome of the trial, each of whom were asked to describe their understanding of Decedent’s intentions regarding his life insurance proceeds. Only the testimony of Appellant was offered to contradict Ms. Pearce’s expert opinion. However, in its final order the trial court found that Appellant lacked credibility due to the inconsistencies in her testimony. Although the trial court did not make an express finding regarding the credibility of Ms. Pearce’s testimony, it stated that her testimony as an expert assisted its determination that the October 2018 forms were not signed by Decedent.” The trial court’s findings regarding the life insurance policy were upheld (which resulted in reinstatement of a prior beneficiary form naming Towe as beneficiary) because, on appeal, the Court defers to credibility determinations by the fact finder absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.

Regarding the personal property and the bank account withdrawal, the Court of Appeals found the wife’s testimony regarding value was speculative, in part, and reduced the damages award from $37,050.00 to $30,550.00. The Court also found the trial court erred by finding Ms. Brown liable for the $3,500 bank withdrawal since its holding was based on a confidential relationship and that issue was no tin the pleadings. The ” purpose of pleadings is to give notice to all concerned regarding what may be adjudicated, [so] a judgment beyond the scope of the pleadings is beyond the notice given the parties and thus should not be enforced.”

The case was remanded with the sole issue on remand being whether the total award to Decedent’s estate includes the $3,500.00 withdrawal.

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