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Posted by: Tanja Trezise on Feb 11, 2015

Court: TN Court of Appeals

Attorneys 1:

David J. Callahan, III, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Alan Dale Oakley, Jr.

Attorneys 2:

Christopher E. Thorsen, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Desiree Oakley.

Judge(s): CLEMENT

This appeal arises from the denial of a petition to establish a lost will. Following a bench trial in which the opportunity and motive of key witnesses to destroy the original will were at issue, the trial court failed to “find the facts specially” as mandated by Rule 52.01 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. The only findings of fact made by the trial court read: “The evidence in the case was relatively undisputed so this court will not reiterate a lot of the facts. The dispute between the parties is over how the evidence is to be interpreted.” Whether or not the evidence was “relatively undisputed” is debatable; nevertheless, we have concluded that conflicting inferences can be drawn from undisputed evidence concerning the dispositive issue, that being whether persons who had access to the original will had the motivation to destroy the original will. Therefore, it was incumbent upon the trial court to make findings, even on stipulated or undisputed facts. See Lovelace v. Copley, 418 S.W.3d 1, 35 (Tenn. 2013). Because the trial court did not make sufficient findings of fact to afford this court a clear understanding of the basis of its decision, and realizing that the credibility of two key witnesses who may have had the opportunity and motive to destroy the original will was at issue at trial, we are unable to conduct an effective de novo review. Under these circumstances, we would generally remand a case such as this to afford the trial court the opportunity to state its findings of fact and conclusions of law and enter judgment accordingly; however, the judge who tried this case retired in August of 2014. Therefore, we have no choice but to vacate the judgment and remand for a new trial.