One common thread running throughout this blog since its inception has been the issue of competency, i.e., the ability of a person to make informed decisions. Conflicts often arise when ill or elderly people are claimed to have made signficant decisions regarding disposition of their property shortly before they died---sometimes the decision will be legitimate, the culmination of some long, thought-out plan that just never was memorialized on paper until shortly before their death---whereas sometimes the "decision" will be illegitimate, the product of undue influence or overreaching by a dishonest relative, family friend, or advisor. Whatever the facts and circumstances, it can be difficult to prove that the person did not have competency to make the decision that they purportedly made. A recent Arkansas Court of Appeals decision demonstrates that the outcome of these disputes usually boils down to the specific evidence that was presented to the trial court, and ultimately what evidence that the trial court found to be the most credible.
For example, on March 3, 2010, the Court of Appeals ruled in the case of Deslauriers v. Marilyn Irene Deslauriers Revocable Trust, 2010 Ark.App. 211. An appeal from Lonoke County Circuit Court, the appellant (Killeen) attempted to invalidate certain documents (quitclaim deed, revocable trust, will, etc.) executed by her cousin, the deceased, during and after her 2005 stay in a hospital due to a stroke. As a result of those documents, the appellee (Richard, the deceased's "yardman") received the bulk of the cousin's estate. Killeen filed suit after the cousin's death to contest the validity of the documents in question, contending that the cousin was not competent to execute them due to her medical condition.
Under Arkansas law, the party contesting the validity of a will generally has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence ("more likely than not"), (1) that the decedent lacked mental capacity at the time the will was executed or (2) that the decedent was acting under undue influence. The Deslauriers Court affirmed the trial court's ruling that the cousin attempting to set aside the documents did not satisfy that burden.
Killeen presented the testimony of multiple doctors who had treated the deceased around the time of her execution of the documents, and they all testified that she suffered from dementia and would purportedly be incompetent to sign the documents (though they were admittedly not in attendance at the signing). Medical records also demonstrated a range of impairment (from mild to severe) at different times during the relevant time period. Killeen likewise presented the testimony of two non-medical witnesses, one of whom contended that the deceased was mentally incompetent (in their experience) and both of whom testified that the deceased intended to keep her property "in the family."
Richard presented the testimony of the lawyer whom the cousin used to prepare the documents in question, and he testified that he was very careful to determine whether his client was legally competent to execute the documents. The attorney also testified that he had been hired to prepare a power of attorney so that Killeen and Richard could be placed in charge of the deceased's business affairs, and that Killeen herself believed the deceased to be an odd person but very competent. Two other witnesses also testified, in a manner favoring Richard's position, to the extent that they were disinterested employees working at the hospital where the deceased was treated and they observed her as competent when they witnessed her signing of the will. Richard also offered other evidence in the form of the attorney testifying that he met with the deceased several times after her initial execution of the documents, and in the form of a doctor who treated the deceased remarking that he was impressed how mentally capable (though not physically capable) she remained after her stroke.
In sum, the trial court concluded that the cousin did not prove incompetency and that the deceased was sufficiently competent at the time that she executed the documents. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that while proof of medical condition around the time of the execution of the documents is relevant and important, ultimately the medical condition at the time of execution is paramount. The Court seemed to attach particular significance to the testimony of the witnesses who were actually in the room when the decedent signed the documents in question. Observing that it is possible for a testator to execute a document during a "lucid interval" in a period where they may otherwise be incompetent as a general matter, the case generally demonstrates the difficulty that a party can have in attempting to prove a testator's incompetency.