Testamentary capacity is perhaps one of the most-cited reasons for challenging the validity of a will during probate, and for good cause. Capacity directly affects a testator’s legal ability to make a will, which is why every state defines strict statutory guidelines describing mental competency.
Most states do permit claimants to contest a will on grounds of diminished or lacking testamentary capacity if the testator was under the influence of mind-altering medication. However, medication affects each individual differently, so the courts must examine the testator’s state of mind and the actual effects of the medication on a case-by-case basis.
The law presumes that a testator who otherwise meets the requirements to establish a will possesses capacity. This is, however, a rebuttable presumption, meaning the court will define the testator as incapable if a claimant can prove otherwise. Therefore, it is possible to contest a will on grounds of mental incapacity, but the burden of proof is on the claimant to prove incapacity, not on the testator to prove capacity.
Proving Medical Incapacity
To contest the will of a medicated testator successfully, the claimant must demonstrate that the testator was actually under the influence at the time he executed the will, the medication is classified as a mind-altering substance, the medication did actually impede testamentary capacity and that the will does not express the testator’s wishes because of the impediment.
A testator undergoing therapeutic medicinal treatment is not inherently incapacitated. The testator must be taking medication that is known to cause significantly mental impairment. Narcotic painkillers, benzodiazepines and anesthetics are all well-known for their mind-altering capabilities. Illicit narcotics, including opiates, hallucinogens and even marijuana can also incapacitate a testator if he was using them at the time he executed his will.
Mood-altering medications, however, are not known for impeding mental capacity, and usage is unlikely to void the validity of a will. Anti-depressants, antipsychotics, anxiolytics and stimulants actually repair mental incapacitation. Additionally, the claimant must consider how long the testator was using the medication -- a chronic pain patient who used narcotic painkillers regularly over the course of two years is unlikely to experience any considerable mental impediment, as the patient has acclimated to the effects.
Proving Actual Impairment
If the testator was taking mind-altering medications at the time she executed her will, the next step is to prove that the medication caused impairment. It is inherently difficult to prove one’s state of mind, especially if the person is no longer alive to provide testimony. The claimant will need to provide other evidence to make her case, such as testimony from the testator’s relatives and physicians, videos demonstrating the testator’s mental capacity preceding the execution of the will and medical records showing a drastic decline in the testator’s mental capacity.
Read More: How to Contest a Will Proving Incompetence
Even if a claimant can demonstrate impairment, he must prove that the will does not express the testator’s intentions. If the testator’s will is consistent with any previous versions of the will executed prior to the testator’s impairment, the claimant will not be able to contest it. Conversations between the testator and the claimant are also not significant enough to prove intent, especially if the testator was mentally incapacitated at the time. The claimant would need to show that the testator made a major last-minute change to her will and that these changes are inconsistent with previous versions of the will, that a named beneficiary coerced the testator while she was medicated or similar circumstances to prove the will does not define the testator’s intentions.
- Estate of Verdi, by Verdi v. Toland, 733 N.E. 2d 25 (Ind. Ct. App., 2000)
- Hays v. Harmon, 809 NE 2d 460 (Ind. Ct. App., 2004)
- "Wills, Trusts & Estates"; J. Dukeminier, et al.; 2007
- "Probate Disputes and Remedies"; Dawn Goodman, et al.; 2008
- "Probate & Administration of Estates"; Emma Gaudern, et al.; 2007
Carrie Ferland is a practicing civil litigation defense attorney in the Philadelphia Area. As an author, her work has been featured in various legal publications for over 10 years. Ferland is a 2000 graduate of Pennsylvania State University and completed her Juris Doctorate and Master of Business Administration with the Dickinson School of Law. She is currently pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in English.