Understanding the concept of testamentary capacity is crucial when dealing with wills and trusts in Arizona. This guide aims to clarify what testamentary capacity means, the legal requirements, and how it can be challenged. Let’s delve into the details.
What is Testamentary Capacity in Arizona
In Arizona, testamentary capacity means the mental state that is legally required for someone to adopt a valid last will and testament or trust. This is commonly referred to as being of “sound mind.”
Legal Criteria for Testamentary Capacity
Arizona law has set specific standards for determining testamentary capacity. A person is considered to have sufficient testamentary capacity if they are capable of:
- Understanding the Purpose: Knowing that the document disposes of their property upon death.
- Awareness of Assets: Being aware of the general nature and character of their property.
- Recognizing Beneficiaries: Knowing the natural objects of their bounty, such as family members who would logically inherit their property.
Actual knowledge of each of these components is not necessary. Rather, the person must simply have the ability to know, for example, her family. So, a mistake that certain children were alive, when they were not, at the time the will was signed, would likely be insufficient to set aside the will. Unless the testator was so confused, had such poor memory or other condition so as to be unable to know their family.
So, not every departure from normal is sufficient to find a person lacked capacity to sign a will or trust in Arizona. In order to set aside a will or trust, the circumstance must have caused the testator to make a gift that would not otherwise have been made. This applies whether the situation involved undue influence, mistake, duress or misrepresentation.
For example, In re O’Connor’s Est., the testator suffered from delusions that her deceased husband and sister were still alive. The court found that she still had testamentary capacity. It was not shown that the delusions caused the testator to make a testamentary disposition different than what she purportedly would have made in the absence of the delusions.
Presumptions and Challenges
There is a basic presumption that everyone over 18 years old has capacity to make a will or trust. Thus, in order to set aside a will or trust on the ground of testamentary incapacity, the contestant (person attacking or trying to set-aside the document) is required to show that lack of capacity. Lack of capacity means that the will or trust was a product of permanent insanity or insane delusions.
These must be of the nature and severe enough to where:
- He or she did not know and understand the nature of the document: for example, the person did not know he/she was signing a will that would transfer his/her property at death;
- He or she did not know the nature and extent of his/her property: the person did not know what property and assets he/she owned or how much money he/she had; and
- He or she did not know the natural objects of his/her bounty at the time that the will was executed: he/she did not know who his/her family was.
Mistakes, poor memory or general confusion are generally insufficient. Any such mistakes or confusion must relate to the terms of the will itself.
Mental State Evaluation
The person’s mental state is evaluated as of the time that the document in question was signed.
Not every mental departure from normal will destroy a testamentary disposition (a will or trust) that is otherwise valid. Thus, even assuming that the person was suffering from a deteriorating mental condition, or that his/her old age was accompanied by physical infirmities, poor memory or mental slowness (i.e. mild underlying dementia), this is generally not legally sufficient to show lack of testamentary capacity.
Case Study: Estate of Green
For example, in Estate of Green, the Arizona Supreme Court explained the nature of the mental condition necessary for incapacity as follows:
Mental derangement sufficient to invalidate a will must be insanity in one of two forms: (1) [i]nsanity of such broad character as to establish mental incompetency generally; or (2) some specific narrower form of insanity under which the testator is the victim of some hallucination or delusion. Even in the latter class of cases, it is not sufficient merely to establish that a testator was the victim of some hallucination or delusion. The evidence must establish that the will itself was the creature or product of such hallucination or delusion . . .
In the Estate of Killen case, the Court further explained that “Arizona law recognizes that mental illness can render a person incapable of making a valid will if the insanity is so broad as to produce general mental incompetence or a form of insanity that causes hallucinations or delusions. To invalidate a will, however, the will must be a product of the hallucinations or delusions; in other words, the hallucinations or delusions must have influenced the creation and terms of the will such that the testator devised his property in a way that he would not have done except for the delusions.”
So, if the person has a mental illness that prevents him/her from understanding his/her relationships and/or property and the deficiency affected the terms of the will or trust, the document would be invalid.
Since the validity of the will or trust is analyzed as of the time that it was signed, it is often important to look back in time. Here’s a few tips:
- Governing Documents: Typically, it will be crucial to obtain copies of the will or trust and any prior versions of those or related documents.
- Medical Records: Medical and mental health records for the period leading to and around the time that the questioned will or trust was signed are often essential to prove a case involving testamentary capacity.
- Interview Witnesses: It is also usually productive to interview witnesses who dealt with the person at the time that the questioned document was signed.
- Experts: Often, it is important to have a neuropsychologist expert witness review the medical records, and perhaps interview witnesses, in order to ascertain whether the person had capacity or was susceptible to undue influence at the relevant time.
Even if the will or trust would otherwise be valid because the person had testamentary capacity, the document may still be subject to being set aside in Arizona because he or she was unduly influenced.
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Please contact our probate attorneys or call us at 480.607.7999 if you have questions regarding whether someone had testamentary capacity in Arizona, you have a will or trust contest or have any other questions regarding the validity of a trust, will or amendment. Our estate litigation attorneys are here to help.