GUARDIANSHIP CREATES INFERENCE OF LACK OF CAPACITY
By Kent Berk on December 12th, 2012 in conservatorship, guardianship, PROBATE LITIGATION, testament capacity
In probate law, the law presumes that a person has testamentary capacity. Testamentary capacity is the mental state someone must have to adopt a valid last will and testament. If someone wants to attack a last will and testament, they must overcome the presumption with some evidence of a lack of capacity or some other basis to undo the will, such as undue influence. For example, the person attacking the will must show that the person did not know who his family was or did not what property he owned. So, what happens if a person has a guardian appointed on the same day that he adopts a new last will and testament? That was the issue addressed by the Court in Estate of James S. Blackford.
James Blackford signed a last will and testament in 2003 leaving everything to his son. In 2004, a guardian was appointed to care for Blackford. By 2008, that guardian’s health had declined so he could no longer care for Blackford. So, on May 28, 2008, the court held a hearing to determine whether Blackford could care for himself or a replacement guardian should be appointed.
At the May 28, 2008 hearing, Blackford claimed that he was healthy enough to care for himself and that he was self-sufficient. His son argued that his father was not self-sufficient and that a guardian was necessary to care for Blackford. The probate court found that Blackford “’remains impaired by a mental disorder to the extent that he lacks sufficient understanding or capacity to make responsible decisions regarding his person.” The court also concluded that he was “an incapacitated person pursuant to A.R.S. Section 14-5101(1).” Based on those findings, the court appointed a new guardian to care for Blackford.
On the same day that the Arizona probate court held the guardianship hearing, Blackkford adopted a new last will and testament. In that will, he left everything to his grandson, thus disinheriting his son and undoing his 2003 will.
Not surprisingly, after Blackford died, his son challenged the 2008 will. He claimed that the court found that Blackford was incapacitated and needed a guardian on the same day. As a result, the son claimed that the 2008 will was invalid. After various court proceedings, the personal representative filed a motion for summary judgment to uphold the 2008 will. Because the son did not respond to the motion, the court granted the motion and validated the 2008 will.
The son then appealed that ruling. He argued that there was evidence in the court’s file (the findings regarding Blackford’s need for a guardian) based on which the probate court should have found that Blackford could not have adopted a valid will on May 28, 2008. The court of appeals found that the trial court should not have granted summary judgment. The trial court should not have summarily validated the 2008 will. The trial court had evidence in its file showing Blackford’s need for a guardian. That, the court of appeals found, was enough evidence to create an issue of fact requiring a trial as to whether Blackford had testamentary capacity. Even though the son did not respond to the motion for summary judgment, the trial court still should not have granted judgment upholding the 2008 will.
“We do not decide that the guardianship proceedings conclusively determined the issue of [Blackford’s] testamentary capacity. As the court stated in In re Thomas’ Estate, 105 Ariz. 186, 189, 461 P.2d 484, 487 (1969), “[a]n adjudication of incompetency under the guardianship statute does not of necessity indicate a lack of mental capacity to execute a will.”
In other words, a person in need of guardianship may or may not still have testamentary capacity under probate law. But, if a guardian is appointed it is a strong enough suggestion of lack of capacity so as to prevent the court from summarily finding that the person did have testamentary capacity. Thus, the court of appeals sent the case back to the trial court for a trial regarding whether Blackford had testamentary capacity.
The son was successful on his appeal without having filed a response to the motion for summary judgment. That does not mean it is okay to not respond to motions.