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Edward Thomas: Tips on determining testamentary capacity

September 11, 2013
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Indiana Lawyer Focus

By Edward D. Thomas
 

thomas-edward Thomas

The requirements for making a will in Indiana are two-fold: The individual must be (1) of sound mind, and (2) 18 years of age or older. Ind. Code § 29-1-5-1. In actions to contest and set aside the probate of a will, the grounds usually asserted are some combination of unsoundness of mind, fraud, duress, undue influence or that the will was unduly executed. See Ind. Code § 29-1-7-17. One of the more difficult challenges in a will contest is establishing that the testator lacked testamentary capacity. In general, a will executed while the testator is of unsound mind is invalid. However, contrary to popular belief, factors such as old age, physical failings or even failing memory alone are insufficient to establish a lack of testamentary capacity.

Indiana courts presume that every person is of sound mind to execute a will until the contrary is shown. Gast v. Hall, 858 N.E.2d 154, 165 (Ind. App. 2006). To rebut this presumption, a party must show that the testator lacks mental capacity at the time of executing his will to know: (1) the extent and value of his property; (2) those who are the natural objects of his bounty; and (3) their deserts, with respect to their treatment of and conduct toward him. Hays v. Harmon, 809 N.E.2d 460, 464 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004), trans denied.

The key to successfully challenging a will essentially focuses on a two-part inquiry. First, unsoundness of mind sufficient to render a will invalid must exist at the time of the execution of the will. See Deery v. Hall, 175 N.E.141 (Ind. App. 1931). Second, it must be established that the unsoundness of mind impacted the testator’s ability to know his property and know to whom he wishes to devise this property. Thus, to be incapable of executing a will because of unsoundness of mind, a person must have such a degree of mental unsoundness that he or she does not reach the standard of competency generally recognized by law.

While the law does not seek to define the exact quality of mind and memory a testator must possess to authorize him or her to make a will, it does require the testator to know and understand the business in which he or she is engaged, the extent of his or her estate, and the persons who would be the natural objects of his or her bounty. Indiana courts simply require the testator to be able to keep these in mind long enough to form a rational judgment in relation to them. Kaiser v. Happel, 36 N.E.2d 784 (Ind. 1941).

The capacity to make a will is not measured by the testator’s actual knowledge or understanding of the extent and nature of the property devised, but by his or her capacity to understand the extent of his or her estate and the objects of his or her bounty. While a total loss of memory, or the fact that it has become seriously impaired, may render a person incompetent to make a will, not every slight or partial loss of memory will do so. Whiteman v. Whiteman, 53 N.E. 225 (Ind. 1899).

On the issue of testamentary capacity, evidence of the testator’s appearance, conduct, statements, declarations or conversations, both before and after the execution of the will, may be admissible if it is material and occurred in close proximity to the execution of the will. This type of evidence is admissible solely for the purpose of establishing the condition of the testator’s mind, but not as proof of the truth of the facts stated. The exact time which may be covered by the period before or after the testamentary act to show the testator’s mental condition when making the will lies within the sound discretion of the trial court. Thus, the issue of admissibility of evidence is critical to this determination.

Generally, competent evidence of every fact which sheds light on the issue of testamentary capacity is admissible. On the other hand, incompetent, irrelevant or immaterial evidence is generally held inadmissible. Although a testator’s capacity to make a will is to be determined by his or her condition at the time of its execution, evidence of the testator’s mental condition either before or after execution may, depending on the circumstances of each case, be material and admissible. Griffith v. Thrall, 29 N.E.2d 345 (Ind. App. 1940). However, this is true only for the purpose of showing the condition of the testator’s mind at the time the will was executed. Estate of Verdi ex rel. Verdi v. Toland, 733 N.E.2d 25 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000). Where it is established, however, that at the specific time of the execution of the will the testator was mentally sound, his or her mental condition at some other time is of no consequence. Peters v. Knight, 8 N.E.2d 401 (Ind. App. 1937).

Indiana courts have specifically admitted evidence as to various matters on the issue of testamentary capacity, such as: (1) hereditary insanity among the testator’s relatives; (2) testator’s insane delusions and peculiar beliefs or opinions; (3) testator’s physical condition; (4) statements in the testator’s will that he had advanced specific sums to named persons were erroneous; (5) testator’s habits and reputation; and (6) the reasonableness of the provisions of a will.

When testamentary capacity is an issue, or if there is a concern that there may be a challenge based on capacity in the future, it is appropriate for the estate planning attorney to ask a series of questions of the testator before execution of the will. These questions should elicit the testator’s knowledge of the extent of their estate, including the names a nd ages of heirs and beneficiaries. The attorney should also discuss the effects of the will and ensure the testator generally understands the effects of signing the testamentary document. While there is no guarantee that one’s will cannot be successfully challenged, following these suggestions will aid the testator’s personal representative and attorney to defend a subsequent will contest.

Edward D. Thomas (ethomas@lewiswagner.com) is an attorney at Lewis Wagner LLP in Indianapolis, Indiana. He devotes a portion of his practice to representing individuals, executors and trustees when disputes arise in the settlement of estates and the administration of trusts. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

 

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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