For many people going through the probate process, questions can arise about whether the deceased actually had the mental capacity to issue a will at all or whether the person was unduly influenced by someone.
For any potential beneficiaries or estate administrators, it is important to understand some of the lack of capacity claims that can arise.
What is the purpose of a lack of capacity claim?
For a will to be valid, the person creating the will (the testator) has to have sufficient mental capacity to understand the document and its implications, and the person has to be free from undue outside influence.
If the testator does not know that he or she is making a will or doesn’t remember who the family members are, that person is not considered of sound mind. This lack of testamentary capacity renders the will or other estate planning instrument invalid.
Three of the most common types of lack of capacity claims include:
- Lacking soundness of mind: Whether it is a result of dementia or simply the aging process, many people suffer a lack of capacity through no involvement of any other party. These claims can become extremely complicated because the soundness of mind requirement does not require soundness of mind all the time, only during the actual crafting of the will. This means that intermittent bouts of dementia or memory loss, for example, would not be conclusive in showing lack of testamentary capacity. The person must lack capacity at the time of the creation of the estate plan.
- Coercion or intimidation: Coercion or intimidation are less common than the others but perhaps the easiest to show in probate court. If someone has committed abuse against a testator (often a vulnerable elderly person) or threatens abuse unless the testator changes the will, this is coercion. Since coercion results in undue influence, the testator was no longer free to make his or her own independent decisions, thus invalidating a will.
- Emotional manipulation: Emotional manipulation is another example of undue influence from an outside party. In many cases, emotional manipulation comes from a nurse or caretaker, and on some occasions, a long-lost relative. This person gets very close to the testator and manipulates the person until they change their will.
These are all serious claims that would likely have a significant impact on the distribution of assets in probate. If you are facing a claim of undue influence or you are a potential beneficiary who thinks you might not be getting what you should from the estate, you should work with an experienced probate lawyer who can help you through the process.