In the coming years we will see a marked increase in the number of cases challenging the legality of a will on the grounds of mental incapacitation of the person making the will. Though the reason for the increase in will contests is debatable, the growing number of elders with medical issues affecting their cognition; the transfer of wealth between World War II and baby boomer generations; and the change in the traditional nuclear family certainly play a role.
Mary lived alone on a large estate for fifteen years following her wealthy second husband’s death. Her only living relative was her sister, Louise. The two have been close since childhood, but in recent times the frailty of both women has led to fewer and fewer visits. Mary passed away in January after a three-year battle with endometrial cancer. Although weakened by age and sickness, often delusional and dependent on prescription medication, Mary executed a second version of her will in 2010 (unbeknownst to Louise) with the assistance of her live-in caregiver, Kate. When the terms of Mary’s will are administered, Louise discovers that she is to receive just $1,000 while Kate is the primary benefactor of Mary’s $450,000 estate.
Many times, the relative of one who has recently passed believes that they were unjustly left out of a will. Perhaps due to the mental state of the deceased, the relative might believe that the deceased was delusional in granting a non-relative a financial windfall. In the above example, Louise would like to know whether she has any legal recourse to challenge Kate’s award. She feels that Kate knew about Mary’s delusional capabilities and possibly took advantage of Mary in receiving the majority of Mary’s estate, and finds it hard to believe that her sister would not have left her more. However, it is also reasonable to see that Mary might have felt indebted to Kate and wanted to provide her with a genuine token of appreciation for her services.
In order to create a valid will in Massachusetts a person must possess “testamentary capacity”. In most states, this means that the person creating the will understands the nature of the document, the worth of her assets, and her relationship with whomever she is transferring them to. Testamentary capacity requires freedom from delusion which is the effect of disease or weakness and which might influence the disposition of her property. The person executing the will needs only to be aware of her actions during the period of time she is making the will. The fact that he or she doesn’t remember it the day after does not invalidate a will.
Although wills contests arise frequently, proving that a person is without testamentary capacity is difficult because signing a will does not require a great deal of coherence nor consistency. Louise would have be allowed to contest Mary’s will in the probate court, but it likely would lead to a lot of costly litigation. Most often the disagreeing parties will negotiate a settlement to mitigate the litigation.
If a relative finds themselves in a similar position, they should contact an attorney experienced in Estate Administration to discuss the possibility of a legal claim. If you considering disinheriting an heir who might attempt to challenge a will’s provisions, speak to an experienced Estate Planning attorney about avoiding the probate process altogether through the use revocable or irrevocable trust planning.
Contesting a will is a procedural and difficult process. Yet, if you feel that a loved one lacked the mental capacity to transfer his or her estate, contact our office to discuss your options.