People often question whether a deceased person was mentally capable of executing or changing a will or trust. Perhaps the person was suffering from dementia at the time. The legal question involved in these situations is typically whether the decedent had the requisite “testamentary capacity.” Testamentary capacity has generally been deemed to mean sufficient mental ability to (1) understand and remember, without prompting, the extent and condition of the testator’s property; (2) understand the “natural objects of their bounty;” and (3) understand to whom the property is being given and on what terms.
Testamentary capacity is not a particularly high state of mental capacity, but it can be rebutted in some instances by evidence of Alzheimer’s Disease, severe forms of dementia, severe illness, intoxication, etc. These conditions need to have actually existed at the time of execution of the instrument in question. For example, the mere fact that mild dementia is diagnosed years before the execution of the instrument does not necessarily mean that the testator lacked capacity when they executed their will or trust, because even a lucid interval of capacity (and people suffering from dementia often have “good days” and “bad days”) can be deemed sufficient.
Capacity issues are very fact-intensive determinations, and lack of capacity is often pretty difficult to prove. This is why capacity claims are often coupled with “undue influence” claims, which are often related, frequently alleged in the addition or in the alternative, and sometimes easier to prove. Undue influence will be discussed in my next post.
Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at email@example.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.