Property-In Re Estate of Vincent: The Tennessee Supreme Court Declines to Extend the Common Law Doctrine of Exoneration to Survivorship Property

By Clary, Thomas E., III | The University of Memphis Law Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Property-In Re Estate of Vincent: The Tennessee Supreme Court Declines to Extend the Common Law Doctrine of Exoneration to Survivorship Property


Clary, Thomas E., III, The University of Memphis Law Review


On January 22, 1993, George Vincent (Decedent) purchased real property in Deerfield Resort, Campbell County, Tennessee (Deerfield Property).1 Decedent borrowed money to purchase the Deerfield Property from Home Federal Bank (bank) and signed a note secured by a deed of trust on the property.2 On June 17, 1993, Decedent conveyed the Deerfield Property to himself and his nephew, William J. Vincent (Vincent), as joint tenants with right of survivorship.3 Decedent recorded the survivorship deed and made all the monthly mortgage payments on the Deerfield Property until his death on February 22, 2001.4 A few weeks before his death, Decedent executed a will that designated an individual named John Oliver as the sole beneficiary of all his real and personal property.5 The will, however, did not mention Vincent, the Deerfield Property, or the mortgage on the property,6 but did contain the following instructions:

I direct my Executor to pay all my just debts and funeral expenses; provided however, any installment debts secured by real estate may, in the discretion of my executor, continue to be paid on an installment basis for so long as my Executor deems such method of payment to be beneficial to my estate.7

After the Deerfield Property passed to Vincent by virtue of the survivorship deed, the bank received no further payments and the mortgage went into default.8 The bank levied a claim against the estate, seeking the balance of the mortgage.9 Vincent filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that would entitle him to exoneration10 of the mortgage debt.11 The trial court denied Vincent's claim, determining that Decedent's estate did not include the Deerfield Property and that the doctrine of exoneration, therefore, did not apply.12 On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court, and held that the debt should be exonerated because the will directed the personal representative of the estate to pay all the testator's "just debts."13 The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Vincent's application for permission to appeal and held, reversed. In the absence of a testator's clear language to the contrary, the common law doctrine of exoneration does not extend to property passing by right of survivorship. In re Estate of Vincent, 98 S.W.3d 146 (Tenn. 2003).

The doctrine of exoneration originated in English common law.14 English cases from the early eighteenth century demonstrate that an heir or devisee of real property could look to a decedent's personal estate to satisfy any mortgage debt remaining on a decedent's probate property.15 The doctrine of exoneration stems from the broad English common law rule that all debts of the deceased were to be paid from his personal estate.16 Moreover, English common law held real property in high regard.17 Not surprisingly, English common law provided for exoneration from the personal estate of a decedent, rather than from the real property itself.18

Along with the condition that property could only be exonerated from the personal estate of the decedent, the English common law doctrine of exoneration had other limitations.19 For instance, if a will demonstrated that the testator did not wish for property to be exonerated, the doctrine did not apply and a devisee took property subject to any encumbrances.20 In addition, for the doctrine of exoneration to be invoked, the mortgage had to be a personal obligation of a decedent.21 As the law developed, these principal limitations evolved into various alternative rules as courts interpreted the doctrine.22 In 1854, however, England abrogated the common-law doctrine of exoneration.23 Thereafter, a bequest of real property carried with it any encumbrance that existed at the testator's death, unless the testator clearly intended for his estate to exonerate the debt.24

By the time England abrogated the doctrine of exoneration in the mid-1850s, it was already firmly established as a legal doctrine in the United States. …

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