Falling a Yard Short: The consequences of failing to make a will

Over the course of 13 seasons, Steve “Air” McNair established himself as one of the most prominent quarterbacks in the NFL.  Beginning his NFL career with the Houston Oilers in 1995, McNair was the backbone of the team as they relocated to Tennessee and became the Tennessee Titans.  At the height of his career, McNair passed for over 3,300 yards in one season after having already lead the team to its first ever Super Bowl appearance in 2000.  

Having grown up in a home of modest means, McNair wanted to ensure his mother, Lucille McNair, was well provided for after he became one of the highest paid players in the Titans organization.  He purchased a 45-acre ranch in Collins, Mississippi, which he intended would serve as a home to the single-mother who had worked a graveyard shift at a nearby factory to provide for Steve and his four brothers as they grew up.  Having toiled for years to make ends meet, Lucille had finally been able to enjoy a time of relaxation thanks to her son’s success.  Unfortunately, subsequent events would bring turmoil to this time of prosperity in the McNair family. 

In 2009, Steve McNair was found dead in Nashville due to multiple gunshot wounds.  Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that, although McNair had taken steps to have more than one will drafted, he had never actually signed either copy of his will. 

McNair’s failure to have a will resulted in a number of negative consequences that were not intended.  Because the ranch where Lucille lived was titled in Steve’s name only, and because there was no will to direct who would own it after his death, state law determined who owned the real property.  The ranch passed to his heirs at law instead of his mother as he presumably intended.  After receiving notice from the estate that she would have to pay $3000 per month in rent, Lucille had no choice but to move into a smaller home in Collins, Mississippi.  Lucille’s encounters with the estate continued in 2011, when Steve’s widow Mechelle McNair, executrix of the estate, sent Lucille a claim for over $50,000 for items the estate alleges Lucille took from the property.  Lucille asserted that she purchased these items.

In Tennessee, there are two ways to have a valid will.  The first is to execute an attested will; this is generally done by having the testator (person whose will is being executed) and two witnesses execute the will in each other’s presence.  Alternatively, Tennessee law provides that a will written and signed entirely in a person’s own handwriting is valid.  It is important to note that these are strict requirements and generally no leeway is given.  If these requirements are not met, a Court may find that the will is invalid and treat the estate as if the decedent died without a will.

It is important to note that the court cannot give any weight to the fact that a person may have made certain statements during his life as to how he wanted his property distributed upon his death.  A court will not hear the testimony of multiple witnesses or recognize a will that was drafted, but never signed, by a decedent.  Even if a will is properly executed, the court will not give any weight to phrases in the will such as “I would like”, “I wish”, or “I hope that”.  These phrases are also referred to as precatory language, which means the language is not a directive, but rather a suggestion.  It is important to use mandatory, directive language in your will.  Language such as “I leave my car to John Smith” or “I devise all my real estate to Jane Doe”, for example, is required. 

Steve McNair likely intended to make a will that provided his mother would be taken care of in the event of his death. He may have spoken with his mother and expressed his wishes to her or to others close to him.  He had even taken steps to have his will drafted, but his failure to sign his will left his loved ones exposed.  He was close to taking all of the steps necessary to ensure his assets were distributed as he intended.  Close isn’t good enough to create a valid will.  Close is one yard short of a touchdown, which just might mean the difference in winning and losing a Super Bowl.

If you haven’t made arrangements to execute a last will and testament, you should consult a local attorney to ensure you don’t come up a yard short.

–– Jordan Osborn is an associate with the law firm of Ramsey, Thornton & Barrett, PLC.

The foregoing article is not intended as, nor shall be used, relied upon, or otherwise construed as legal advice or an attorney-client relationship. You are advised to seek independent legal advice from an attorney licensed in the State of Tennessee.

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