How to Prove Lack of Testamentary Capacity in Tennessee

It’s an unfortunate reality that as you grow older, you may be at increased risk of physical injury or chronic health conditions that can impact your ability to take care of yourself. The mind can also grow weaker with age, and dementia and other conditions of mental impairment that affect the elderly may also interfere with estate planning. An elderly relative who suffers from Alzheimer’s may make decisions about their assets that don’t reflect reality, or they may be at higher risk of being unduly influenced or otherwise taken advantage of in drafting their will.

In these cases, you may need to prove a lack of testamentary capacity—or, in other words, a person’s ability to write a legally valid will.

The Importance of Testamentary Capacity in Inheritance and Estate Planning

Testamentary capacity is a fundamental aspect of estate planning and inheritance law. Knowing that a will was written and executed by somebody with a sound mind, free of coercion or undue influence, ensures that their last wishes for their estate and family are respected.

What are the four basic attributes of testamentary capacity?

Writing a will is often a very simple act, but the person responsible for writing the will—the testator—must be well aware at all times of what they are doing and why they are doing it. In probate and estate law, a testator must meet all of the following four criteria to have the capacity to legally write a will, as established by centuries of common law:

  1. Knowledge of the nature and extent of their property
  2. Knowledge of the natural objects of their bounty
  3. Knowledge of how the will would dispose of their property
  4. The ability to make a rational plan for the disposition of their property

These four principles form the foundation of testamentary capacity.

In plain English, what it means to have testamentary capacity in the state of Tennessee is that the court can answer all of the following questions affirmatively:

  • Does the testator understand they are making a will and know the consequences of their decisions?
  • Do they understand what assets they own and their value?
  • Does the testator have a reasonable understanding of their family relationships and who their potential beneficiaries are?
  • Is the testator unaffected by any disorders of the mind or delusions that could impact the writing of their will?

If any one of these questions cannot be answered with ‘yes,’ the testator lacks capacity and their will can be contested.

What Happens If a Loved One Lacks Testamentary Capacity

If a living loved one lacks testamentary capacity due to dementia or other chronic mental illness or impairment and cannot write their own will, one possible remedy is for them to be placed into guardianship or conservatorship through the court and have a legal guardian make decisions related to their will on their behalf. Identifying signs of mental incompetence and acting on them by proving diminished mental capacity or cognitive decline in court can provide a legal solution to prevent your loved ones from being taken advantage of.

As your family members age, they can also proactively plan for the eventuality that they may be unable to make informed decisions by executing advance directives, such as a durable power of attorney, that would allow an appointed agent to make decisions on their behalf if they become incapacitated.

If a recently departed loved one did not appear to have testamentary capacity at the time their most recent will was, their will could be challenged in court. A successful challenge can lead to the will being thrown out and an older version of the will being used in its place. If there is no older will to use, the postmortem probate system can decide how the estate and assets will be distributed.

The Burden of Proof for Testamentary Capacity in Tennessee Probate Court

As the foundation of a will’s legal validity, the question of whether a testator lacked capacity is a serious one that invites a significant burden of proof upon the claimant. It can be especially difficult to prove a lack of testamentary capacity after the person in question has passed on and requires the aid of estate and probate law professionals with deep knowledge of your state’s unique inheritance laws.

Identifying Signs of Incompetence in the Elderly

Proving that a living testator lacks the ability to make their own estate decisions and needs a guardian or conservator, or that a recently departed testator could not have met the criteria for testamentary capacity in the execution of their will, depends on identifying signs of mental incompetence. These signs may include:

  • Observable signs of cognitive impairment, such as memory loss, confusion, or difficulty concentrating
  • Periodic or ongoing lack of awareness of time, place, or person
  • Difficulty expressing thoughts coherently or understanding complex instructions
  • Inability to understand the nature or extent of one’s assets
  • Lack of knowledge about family and beneficiaries
  • Evidence of delusions or hallucinations
  • Abrupt changes in behavior

Proving cognitive decline, diminished mental capacity, or signs of incompetence in an elderly testator at the time of their will’s writing rests on collecting and presenting a variety of evidence, including medical documentation and expert testimony:

Medical Evidence and Health History

The testator’s medical records, assessments, and evaluations conducted around the time their will was executed can provide insights into their mental state, cognitive abilities, and any conditions that could affect their capacity.

If the testator had a known history of mental illness or cognitive impairment in the past, previous medical documents may also be relevant in demonstrating a lack of testamentary capacity.

Historical medical records can be essential for proving cognitive decline by showing a pattern of diminished mental capacity over the testator’s life.

Expert Testimony

Along with medical records, medical professionals and forensic psychologists may step in to lend their knowledge in the field to interpret the available medical evidence and present their opinions on the testator’s mental capacity to the court.

Witness Testimony

Family members and witnesses who were present for the creation and execution of a will can also be called upon in court to speak to the testator’s behavior, demeanor, and apparent mental state. This can include observations as to whether or not the testator understood the nature and consequences of their actions at the time.

Contemporaneous Documentation

A testator’s correspondences or personal writings, such as letters or emails to family or friends or diary entries, can potentially be useful in proving lack of testamentary capacity, if these documents point to evidence of diminished mental capacity, mental incompetence, or duress at the time their will was executed.

Proving Undue Influence

Isolation, manipulation, and pressure by others to alter one’s will also interfere with one’s testamentary capacity. Elderly testators, especially those with signs of mental incompetence, are especially vulnerable to being taken advantage of by family members, caretakers, or other beneficiaries. A will is meant to be written through one’s free will. If a loved one writes any part of their will under duress, they lack testamentary capacity.

Find Out How to Prove Undue Influence

Why Proving Lack of Testamentary Capacity is Difficult

Anyone who writes a will is initially presumed to have the full faculties to understand what they are doing and why. For centuries, the legal system has developed itself to uphold a high burden of proof for challenging testamentary capacity. People have a right to do what they want with their property after death, even if their heirs may not agree with all of their decisions.

The high standards for proving diminished mental capacity, mental incompetence, or insane delusion in testators—both the living and the recently deceased—prevent the courts from unduly depriving them of their freedom by invalidating their will or appointing a conservator or guardian to make estate decisions simply because heirs or beneficiaries might disagree with the decisions they have decided to make.

Because the burden of proof is so high and because the law often differs in subtle but important ways from state to state, you need honest advice and expertise in your state’s inheritance laws from an experienced legal team in your area.

If you believe a living relative lacks testamentary capacity and needs court-appointed assistance in their estate planning or a recently deceased relative’s will was executed in a diminished capacity, contact MHPS Law today to schedule a consultation and get the honest advice and personal attention you need to pursue a fair legal resolution.

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You don’t have to face a legal case alone. Get the support and guidance you need to make informed decisions and navigate the complexities of the law. Reach out today, and let’s take the first step together.