The terms of a decedent’s Last Will and Testament (if one was left behind) are used to determine how the decedent’s estate assets are distributed during the probate process. Sometimes, however, the validity of a Will is challenged in what is known as a Will contest. One of the grounds that may be alleged to challenge a Will is “lack of testamentary capacity.” What, exactly, does that mean though? Whether you are considering a challenge to a Will or you are an Executor with a duty to defend a Will, a key issue is the the concept of testamentary capacity.
Probate is the legal process that follows the death of an individual. Probate serves several important purposes, including:
- Ensuring that the decedent’s assets are identified, located, valued, and eventually passed down to the intended beneficiaries and/or heirs of the estate.
- Authenticating the decedent’s Will and litigating any challenges to its authenticity.
- Notifying creditors and providing them with the opportunity to file a claims against the estate.
- Ensuring that all gift and estate taxes are paid.
Challenging a Will
When a Will is submitted for probate, one of the functions of the probate court is to authenticate the Will. During this time, any “interested” party may challenge that authenticity. An interested person is usually defined as someone with an interest in the outcome, such as a beneficiary under the current or former Will, a legal heir of the estate, or sometimes even a creditor of the estate. A Will challenge cannot be brought simple because the individual is unhappy with the inheritance left to him/her (or not left) in the Will. To challenge a Will a contestant must allege a legal reason why the Will is not valid. The State of California, like most states, recognizes several legal grounds on which a Will might be declared invalid, including fraud, duress, undue influence, and revocation. One of the most commonly alleged grounds, however, is lack of testamentary capacity. Often misunderstood, lack of testamentary capacity is somewhat more complicated than most people realize.
Testamentary Capacity Explained
For a Last Will and Testament to be valid, several conditions must be met. One of those is that the Testator must have had “testamentary capacity” at the time the Will was executed. Testamentary capacity required the Testator to have understood four things at the time the Will was executed, including:
- What property he/she actually owns;
- The natural objects of his/her bounty (his/her relatives and descendants);
- What a Will is and how he/she is disposing of his/her property;
- The overall scheme of disposing of his/her property.
Proving a lack of testamentary capacity is often more difficult than it may appear. Even an older individual who may be suffering from Alzheimer’s or a similar condition may not always lack testamentary capacity. The key point in time is when the Will was executed. If the Testator’s mental capacity varies over time, but has lucid intervals, then the Testator is deemed to have testamentary capacity if the Will is executed during a lucid period. Moreover, the law presumes that a Testator had the requisite capacity, meaning that a contestant must prove otherwise. Finally, the standard for testamentary capacity is much lower than in other areas of the law. A Testator could easily be determined to have had the requisite capacity to execute a Will at the same time that he/she lacked the necessary capacity to enter into a contract. The rationale for this has always been that the State should not interfere with how a Testator chooses to distribute his/her property absent a clear showing that the Testator did not know what he/she was doing at the time.
Please download our FREE estate planning checklist. If you have additional questions or concerns about testamentary capacity, contact us at the Northern California Center for Estate Planning & Elder Law by calling (916)-437-3500 or by filling out our online contact form.