Lack of Testamentary Capacity

Contesting Invalid Wills in California Courts

If you sign a legal contract, you need to have the mental capacity to understand what you are agreeing to-and a last will and testament is no different. When people draft and sign their wills (testators), they need to comprehend exactly what they are doing and the implications of all the terms of their wills. The presumption is that adults who decide to create a will know what they are doing and the law allows them to divide their estates as they wish. This is called having the necessary testamentary capacity.

In some situations, an individual may sign and execute or amend a will without sufficient testamentary capacity. This can result in wills with provisions that treat descendants unfairly and are not what testators would have intended were they fully mentally capable.

If a will causes financial harm to one or more descendants or would-be descendants, the affected individuals can challenge the validity of the will. If you think you may have a claim for lack of testamentary capacity, you need the right law firm on your side.

Will contests are never simple, so hire a lawyer with a focus on estate litigation to help you out. Attorney Michael Hackard and the team at Hackard Law focus on estate litigation and understand how to handle these complicated matters. We represent clients in all types of will contests, so please consult with a member of our team today regarding a questionable will.

Mental Incompetence Under California Law

The requirement of testamentary capacity is so important that California law clearly sets out what constitutes mental incompetence for testators. If any of the following are true, a testator may lack the mental competence to sign a will:

Individuals who do not understand the nature of their actions - Someone who signs a will should fully understand that the document will bequest certain portions of the estate to certain descendants. Testators should understand that by leaving someone out of a will, that person will not receive anything, and they should understand the effects of leaving disproportionate gifts.

The individual does not understand the nature of their property - To make decisions to divide an estate, testators must understand the nature of the assets and property they own. They should know what they have to leave their descendants and make decisions about how to divide that property accordingly.

Testators do not understand their relationships to descendants - Testators should understand their close familial relationships to determine how they want to divide their estates. They should know whether they have a spouse and children and should not experience any inaccurate delusions regarding their relationships.

If you believe that any of the above were true and an inequitable will resulted, you may grounds to challenge the will. Our attorneys will evaluate the circumstances surrounding the creation of the will and the provisions of the will, and can advise you of your legal rights and options.

Proving Mental Incompetence

Each determination of testamentary capacity (or lack thereof) is extraordinarily fact-specific. As people age or become ill, their cognitive faculties can fade. They can forget details or may require more time to process information. However, diminished memory or cognitive abilities are not always enough for a finding of mental incompetence when it comes to will contests. People who forget a grandchild's name did not necessarily forget they had grandchildren at all.

Proof of the following may constitute sufficient lack of testamentary capacity in many situations:

● Advanced dementia or Alzheimer's disease that caused severe memory impairment

● The testator no longer understood language

● Loss of reading skills

● Loss of cognitive function and judgment ability due to stroke, brain injury, or frontal lobe disorders

● Personality or mental disorders that cause issues with judgment, delusions, or hallucinations

● Medication or illnesses that diminished mental faculties

Records can prove that people with any of these medical diagnoses likely did not have the mental capacity to draft or amend a will. Absent any clear medical issues that would diminish mental capacity, mental incompetence can prove significantly more difficult to establish.

To successfully prove a lack of testamentary capacity, you must provide sufficient evidence of the testator's mental state at the time the person signed the will. Just because someone had largely lost her memory at the end of her life does not mean that she suffered from such advanced memory loss when she drafted or amended her will months or years beforehand. However, if you believe a person lacked capacity at that time, our attorneys can gather evidence to assert your claims. Such evidence often includes testimony from close friends or family members, medical providers, caretakers, and others who witnessed:

● Odd behavior

● Mental regression

● Substantial memory loss

● Lack of mental alertness

● Dependency on others for basic decisions

The way a judge interprets the evidence presented can vary widely, especially if others present evidence in support of testamentary capacity. You need the assistance of an attorney who fully understands the requirements for proving such claims and who will fight to protect your rights against an invalid will.

Even if you prove mental incompetence, you must also prove that the incompetence resulted in a will that wrongfully denied you of an inheritance. You must sufficiently demonstrate that you would have received a greater portion of the estate had the testator possessed the necessary testamentary capacity when drafting or amending the will.

Contact a California Estate Litigation Law Firm for More Information Today

Judges often must base determinations in will contests on conflicting circumstantial evidence that they can interpret in multiple ways. To challenge the mental capacity as required by California law, your attorney must know how to properly and skillfully present all evidence supporting your claim.

If you would like to discuss the possible merits of a will contest, please call Hackard Law please call (213) 357-5200 for our Los Angeles office and (916) 313-3030 for our Santa Clara office, or contact us online.