To create a valid will, the person signing the will (the testator) must have the mental capacity to understand what he or she is doing and the effects of creating a will. This is called testamentary capacity. If the testator is not of sound mind or does not meet the other requirements necessary to make a will, the will may not be valid.
Determining a Valid Will
Many factors can determine the validity of a will. Some of these factors include the age of the person making the will, whether the document and its signing complied with the statutory requirements, whether the signer was competent to make a will at the time, and whether the will was made under any duress, improper or undue influence. If it is found that a will was created without meeting specific criteria, the will may be deemed invalid.
Must be an Adult
For a testator to have the capacity to make a will, he or she must be over 18 years of age. This is because longstanding rules of law presume that minors are not capable of making sound decisions about their property and estate. By requiring that all wills be made by adults, it can be further ensured that those decisions are made with maturity and understanding. This protects the testator's assets and allows for a smooth transition of property upon their death.
Must Understand What They are Signing
A testator must be able to understand what they are signing for a will to be valid. If the testator cannot understand the document, it may not be legally binding. A will is a legal document that dictates how a person's property should be distributed after they die. The testator must know what they are signing and understand what it means for their estate. Otherwise, there may be disputes among beneficiaries about the will's validity.
Must Know the Names and Relationships of the Beneficiaries
A testator needs to have sufficient capacity to know the names and relationships to "the natural objects of the testator's bounty." That typically means that the testator should know who close family members are as well as others who are listed in the will. If the testator does not have the capacity to understand these basic relationships, it cannot be said that the testator truly understands the consequences of their actions. Consider the loving father who does not remember that he had children and is preparing to sign a will leaving his estate to an interloper solely because he can't remember that he has any family. It cannot be said that such a person has the capacity to execute a will.
Must Understand the Nature of Their Property
A testator must also understand the nature, condition and extent of their property to make a valid will. The testator must know what they own and what they are giving away in order for a decision to be deemed informed and intelligent about who should inherit their property. If the testator cannot understand the nature of their property, the will may be invalidated. This is important because a testator who believes himself or herself to be destitute may make very different dispositive provisions in a will than if he or she understood that they possessed a vast fortune. If the testator is not able to understand the nature and extent of his or her estate, then the will is likely invalid.
A Will is Difficult to Invalidate
Ultimately, it is up to a jury to decide whether the facts of any given case are sufficient to prove a lack of capacity. The fact that a testator was frail or ill, had a failing memory, was an alcoholic or was addicted to drugs does not necessarily mean that he or she lacked the capacity to make a will. Although these factors would likely be admissible in court, the weight to be given to them will be left to a jury. If the statutory formalities for the execution of a will have been complied with, the contestant – the person trying to prove that the will is invalid -- has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the will is not valid.
Causes for Invalidity
A will might become invalid if the testator lacked testamentary capacity. If it is determined that the will was made while the person was not competent, the will may be invalidated. If there was an earlier will, it might be revived; otherwise, the property in the estate will be distributed according to the laws of intestacy. Some common factors that might give rise to concerns about the validity of a will are:
● Under the influence of drugs, alcohol or medication.
● Mental illness resulting in the inability to fulfill testamentary capacity.
● Brain injury, such as a concussion or contusion.
● Memory-affecting conditions, like Alzheimer's or dementia.
Contesting a Will at Obenshain Law Group
At Obenshain Law Group, we have the experience and resources to help you contest a will or defend a will contest. If you believe that the will is not valid, we can help you take legal action to protect your interests. We can also help you mount a defense if someone has filed a will contest against you. We have the knowledge and experience to handle these complex cases, and we will work diligently to get the best possible outcome for you.
Call us today at (540) 318-7360 or fill out a form online for a free initial consultation.