Understanding Testamentary Capacity in Drafting a Will

Understanding Testamentary Capacity in Drafting a WillFor a will to be considered valid in Pennsylvania, the person who creates it (testator) must be of sound mind and judgment. A common reason for contesting a will is lack of testamentary capacity. Someone who is contesting a will for this reason must prove that the testator (person who created or changed a will) lacked the mental competence to do so.  Probate litigation attorneys often handle cases involving testamentary capacity. Regardless of whether you are creating your own will or you are thinking of contesting a loved one’s will, a lawyer can help you understand the concept and how it may apply in your specific circumstances.

What is Considered “Sound Mind” in Pennsylvania?

Just because someone is elderly, eccentric, physically weak, suffering from an illness or has a poor memory, it does not mean that they lack testamentary capacity. Some common conditions that may result in testamentary incapacity include:

  • Dementia
  • Delusions
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Other mental disorders that affect a person’s ability to understand their actions

One Pennsylvania court summarized having testamentary capacity as: “At the time of execution of the will the testator had an intelligent knowledge regarding the natural objects of his bounty, of the property he possesses and of what he desires to do with his estate.”

To put it simply, a person is considered mentally competent to draft and execute a will if:

  • The testator understands that the document they are drafting and signing is a will
  • The testator understand the nature and situation of the property referred to in the will
  • The testator remembers and understands the beneficiaries named in the will

When a testator intends to give all of their property to one person, their knowledge of property has little bearing. Testamentary capacity in creating a will does not rise to the same level required to sign a contract or conduct business. An estate planning attorney would not encourage someone who obviously lacks testamentary capacity to create a will.

Challenging a Will Due to Lack of Testamentary Capacity

If you believe a loved one was mentally incompetent when they drafted their will, you can contest the will in the Orphans Court. You must present evidence showing that their lack of testamentary capacity affected the creation of the will and/or distribution of assets. Some common evidence used in these types of cases includes medical records, witness testimony and testimony from health care providers. If you successfully prove testamentary incapacity, the court will likely invalidate the will and the estate may be distributed according to the laws of intestate succession. These types of cases are complex, so it is critical to seek the counsel of experienced lawyers who handle wills who can evaluate your case and advise on the best course of action.

If you need help with estate planning or are considering contesting a loved one’s will, finding a good probate lawyer in Chester County, PA, can help to ensure your rights and interests are protected.