The following blog article was written for Webb Law Group, APC.
When a loved one passes away, it can often lead to a great deal of heartache and turmoil among family and friends. There is an even greater chance of this happening when those individuals take issue with that person’s will and trust. Some people may contest the validity of such documents on the grounds that their loved one lacked the capacity to make appropriate decisions on these matters. Additionally, others may claim their loved one was undue influenced and the legal document he or she signed was done so against their free will.
Unfortunately, cases of this nature often end up in probate court litigation. At Webb Law Group, our California probate litigation attorneys specialize in challenging and defending wills and trusts. This is especially true of those where one’s lack of capacity may have influenced the documents and/or apparent wishes of the deceased.
What is a Lack of Capacity?
Adults are, by default, usually presumed to possess the ability to draft a will or enter into a contract. Therefore, they are presumed to have an inherent capacity to make legal decisions of this nature. Basically, a lack of capacity means that one cannot legally agree to the stipulations of contracts because of a brief or permanent condition that affects their ability to make decisions. Consequently, contracts may be voided if the party is determined to lack the capacity to agree to enter into a legal agreement.
Most states use what is known as a “cognitive test” to determine one’s mental capacity or lack thereof. If the party in question understands (or understood) the words in the contract and the effect that entering into the contract would have on them and their property, they are then considered to be mentally sound and capable. Therefore, according to California courts, they then have the legal capacity to know and understand the ramifications of such an agreement.
Certain persons deemed to lack the capacity to enter into contracts may either choose to personally void those contracts or to have said contract(s) voided by a legal guardian or representative. This, of course, is only relevant in cases where the person deemed to lack capacity is still alive. Things become more complicated when contesting both wills and trusts set up by or for individuals who have passed.
Who Might Lack Legal Capacity?
People may be determined to lack the capacity to enter into contracts should a mental impairment prevents them from making wise legal decisions. A lack of capacity may be argued for and applied to both in the short and long term. A short-term lack of capacity may be the result of a temporary mental health condition. Additionally, a lack of capacity may occur due to sedating or disorienting medications one might be taking at the time an agreement was entered into. This is especially true if said medications interfere with one’s normal mental functioning.
As noted, a long-term lack of capacity may also be determined to have affected the judgment of a person who entered into a contract or agreement. This may include individuals who are developmentally disabled, those who have suffered head trauma and brain injuries, persons suffering from dementia, or those who may have psychotic disorders, delusions, or hallucinations.
Finally, a lack of capacity may be determined should the party involved have been under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs at the time an agreement was formulated. Should this occur, the court will most frequently side with the intoxicated individual, as it is presumed the sober party had the intention to take advantage of the intoxicated individual. Ultimately, anyone who is not aware of the things they are agreeing to may be determined to have lacked the legal capacity to make such an agreement. Therefore, it is prudent to ensure those you enter into agreements with are of sound mind to do so.
Lack of Capacity Involving Wills & Trusts
To execute a valid trust, the settlor (or person who created/drafted a trust) must have the present intent to create a trust, deliver the property to the trust, and name beneficiaries and a trustee. It is important to note that a person does not have to be considered “mentally ill” or “incompetent” to lack the capacity to execute a valid will or trust.
Elderly or ill individuals may have some days where they are completely coherent and functional. Other times, they may be confused or may be suffering from delusions or hallucinations brought on by medications or medical conditions. Most frequently, the only requirement to determine one’s capacity when drafting documents of this nature is determining that on the date and time the deceased executed the will or trust, all elements of testamentary intent were present.
Proving a lack of capacity to invalidate a will or trust in probate court can be a complicated matter. Courts are often reluctant to disregard the apparent intent of someone who is no longer alive to testify on the matter. Frequently, a probate court may call upon family members, the drafter of the documents, as well as doctors and psychiatrists, to determine whether the deceased lacked the mental capacity and intent to do so.
If an agreement is made with someone who is shown to lack the legal capacity to enter into such an agreement, that contract is said to be voidable. This means that the person who lacks legal capacity is assumed to have misrepresented themselves. Consequently, the other may choose to void the contract and all of its terms and conditions. This is referred to as a rescinding of the contract. The courts may also rescind or void a contract if legal capacity is not met. Once the contract is voided, the court may demand a returning of both money and/or property, if at all possible.
An Experienced Attorney is Necessary to Contest Wills and Trusts
Many attorneys practice California probate law. However, only an experienced probate litigator is equipped to bring complex legal challenges to a will or trust when objecting based on a lack of capacity. At Webb Law Group, our legal team of experienced probate lawyers have specialized in contested wills and trusts in probate court. We can help you to determine if an objection based on lack of capacity or undue influence is the right legal path for you and your family.
If you feel you may need legal advice about a claim of this nature, the team at Webb Law Group is here to answer any questions you might have. Webb Law Group, APC is a reputable probate litigation firm with experience in matters involving California probate law.
Having a reputable attorney by your side for matters of this nature will offer you the best possible chance of navigating legal battles and lengthy court cases. If you feel you need legal representation, we are happy to review your legal needs and provide consultation and support where necessary. For questions, or to schedule a consultation, contact Webb Law Group today at 559-431-4888 (Fresno) or 619-399-7700 (San Diego).
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