Very often, when the proponent of a will (and sometimes even the attorney-draftsperson or witness) is questioned about the decedent’s mental state and the decedent’s instructions, the reflexive response is that the decedent was “as sharp as a tack” and was “as clear as a bell.” But making a will is not “splitting the atom.” In fact, testamentary capacity has been described recently by the New York County Surrogate’s Court as “the lowest acceptable level of cognitive ability required by law.” Overselling a decedent’s capacity and clarity of communication using tired metaphors may result in the trier of fact becoming suspicious of the proponent, perhaps perceiving the proponent as dishonest where other evidence reveals that the decedent likely had diminished capacity.
In a will contest, the proponent has the burden of proving that the decedent had the capacity to make a will. This burden is often easily established, as a testator is generally presumed to be of sound mind and to have sufficient mental capacity to execute a valid will. The proponent must show that the testator understood the nature and extent of her property, knew the natural objects of her bounty, and the contents of her will. Age, illness, or hospitalization are not determinative – one can suffer from physical weakness and infirmity, a disease of the mind, and failing memory and still possess testamentary capacity at the time of the execution of the will.
A Recent Illustration
A recent decision from Kings County Surrogate’s Court in the Estate of Eleanor Martinico, 2014-3403, NYLJ 1202770885618, at *1 (Sur Ct, Kings County 2016), provides some illustration. There, the decedent, age 83, executed her will while hospitalized – – she was admitted to the hospital nine days prior to the execution. A form in her hospital records completed by staff, entitled “Adult Patient Without Capacity With Surrogate for DNR [Do No Resuscitate] Order,” stated, “I have determined that the patient lacks capacity to make this decision,” by reason of “dementia.” Other medical records stated that the decedent became confused and disoriented during dialysis on the day that she was admitted, and suggested that the decedent had periods of confusion.
However, the attesting witnesses to the decedent’s will were both attorneys who knew the decedent for several years. One knew the decedent for approximately 15 years, had represented her in several matters, and found her demeanor during the propounded instrument’s execution consistent with his prior interactions with her as a person of sound mind acting on her own volition. The witnesses both averred that the decedent, was of “sound and disposing mind, memory and understanding, competent to make a will, free of restraint, and not suffering from any defects which would affect her capacity to make a will.” Further, decedent’s medical records on the date of the execution of the will contained notes indicating that she was alert and oriented to person, place, and time.
This case did not make it to trial. The court, on a motion for summary judgment, held that the objectants failed to proffer evidence sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact that the testator lacked testamentary capacity at the time of the execution of the propounded instrument.
In another widely cited case from the Kings County Surrogate’s Court, Estate of Gallagher, NYLJ, Oct. 19, 2007, at 19, 2007 NY Misc LEXIS 7639 (Sur. Ct. Kings County), the testator, in her eighties, made her will two years after suffering from a traumatic debilitating stroke, and only a few months before the Supreme Court adjudicated her an incapacitated person under New York’s Mental Hygiene Law Article 81. Following the Article 81 hearing, the Supreme Court found that the decedent was suffering from organic brain syndrome and dementia, could not express herself verbally, and was, at times, greatly disoriented. The Supreme Court held that she required one-on-one attention, in a medically assisted supervised home.
The will was offered for probate upon the decedent’s death, and on a motion and cross-motion for summary judgment the Surrogate’s Court held the issue of testamentary capacity should go to a jury. On the motions, the proponent submitted that the testimony of the attorney-draftsperson, a subscribing witness, and affidavits of witnesses who stated that the decedent was able to converse normally, was able to understand her surroundings and act appropriately, and frequently mentioned her trips and interactions with the proponent. Additionally, the Court Evaluator in the Article 81 proceeding affirmed that the decedent was able to communicate and identified her signature on the will. The objectants submitted evidence from the Article 81 guardianship proceeding and the testimony of a treating physician that the decedent lacked testamentary capacity.
Sharp as a Tack?
Not everyone is as “sharp as a tack,” or has the gift of making every communication “as clear as a bell” – – even in the prime of their life. Reflexively insisting that an octogenarian, who suffered from periods of confusion, with a diagnosed illness of the mind, who could not communicate verbally, was “as sharp as a tack,” and “as clear as a bell,” is unnecessary, and could be untruthful and backfire. Ultimately, if the issue of testamentary capacity is presented to a jury, the learned and ponderous musings of lawyers expressed in law reviews, CLE materials, journals, treatises, and yes, blogs, will yield to the opinions of six citizens, some of whom might be suspicious upon hearing that an elderly person suffering from dementia who executed her will in the hospital was, at the time, “as sharp as a tack.”