Testamentary capacity refers to a person’s legal and mental ability to create or change a Will. Interested parties often assert this claim in estate dispute litigation because proof of a lack of testamentary capacity (incapacity) can change the distribution of a testator’s assets.
Heirs and beneficiaries frequently find themselves defending capacity claims in probate court. Iowa Probate Code allows these defendants to present specific evidence proving the testator’s capacity, which ultimately challenges a claimant’s credibility.
Whether you’re a person named in a Will or a recipient of an inter vivos gift, the information in this week’s blog post can help you understand testamentary capacity entirely and how to defend your legacy against invalid capacity claims asserted in court.
What is Testamentary Capacity?
Testamentary capacity addresses the testator’s mental and cognitive aptitude during estate planning activities. To create a legally binding Will, Iowa Probate Code holds that at the time of execution, testators must have held a requisite capacity to understand:
- the nature and extent of their property;
- the natural objects of their bounty (i.e., their family and loved ones);
- how to make rational decisions about the distribution of their assets; and
- how their choices will affect their bounty.
Additionally, Iowa law requires that the testators be free from any undue influence or coercion from others while planning their estates. Autonomy under these circumstances means that testators must hold the mental capacity to resist any pressure or manipulation from others when making decisions about the distribution of their assets.
Overall, testamentary capacity is a crucial element in Iowa estate law as it ensures that the courts will respect a person’s last wishes and distribute his/her assets according to the estate plan presented in probate.
Common Testamentary Capacity Claims
Interested parties sometimes file testamentary capacity lawsuits during probate proceedings. If their efforts succeed, the courts will declare the decedent’s testamentary documents invalid and distribute the testator’s property according to Iowa’s intestacy laws.
Potential motives behind capacity lawsuits vary and depend on the circumstances of each case. For example, a disinherited heir may bring testamentary capacity action to receive a larger share of the estate. A plaintiff may also assert incapacity and undue influence claims against a caregiver or family member who stands to gain a significant inheritance.
However, most litigants make the following common testamentary capacity claims in good faith to ensure the courts fulfill the testator’s last wishes.
Incapacity. A common claim asserting the testator did not know what he/she was doing when creating or amending the Will. Evidence supporting this contention may include proof of dementia or other mental impairments the deceased held during his/her estate planning.
Undue Influence. A separate allegation claiming that another party influenced or coerced the testator (intentionally or negligently) into drafting or modifying the testamentary documents presented in probate. Undue influence occurs when someone in a confidential relationship with the deceased, such as a caregiver or family member, pressures the testator into modifying a Will that solely benefits the influencer.
Fraud or Forgery. Additionally, an interested party may claim that the decedent’s incapacity contributed to Will-fraud. Here, claimants allege the deceased couldn’t have realized the signature on the Will was fake or that the estate planning document the testator endorsed was a forgery.
Strategies for Defending Testamentary Capacity Claims
Proving testamentary capacity is paramount because it validates the Will and the testator’s intent. Defendants involved in estate dispute litigation should therefore take the following active measures to ensure that the courts reject capacity allegations affecting their inheritances.
- Gather evidence that demonstrates the testator’s capacity.
Presenting evidence establishing the decedent’s mental awareness during estate planning is a fundamental defense strategy in testamentary capacity litigation. Defendants can find this proof in medical records, witness testimony, and other documentation that memorialized the testator’s mental state and ability before death. Additionally, when claimants question the testator’s capacity, respondents can use this evidence to cast doubt on the plaintiff’s motive for bringing the lawsuit.
- Have medical professionals provide expert testimony.
Medical professionals may offer the courts insight into the deceased’s mental and cognitive state. Their testimony can also confirm that the decedent understood the consequences of his/her actions and made informed decisions at the time of his/her estate planning. Expert testimony can accordingly confirm the Will’s authenticity and protect the testator’s asset distribution plan.
- Dispute the claimant’s credibility and evidence.
In a testamentary capacity defense, defendants may challenge the claimant’s reason for bringing the lawsuit and the authenticity of any incapacity evidence presented. Respondents may also question credibility when the claimant holds a history of dishonesty or a conflict of interest. Additionally, a defendant may dispute a claimant’s evidence when it’s unreliable or lacks merit.
- Retain an experienced Iowa probate attorney to build a strong defense.
One can attempt to defend testamentary capacity claims alone in court. However, doing so is highly inadvisable. Hiring an experienced Iowa probate attorney is fundamental for building a legal game plan to defend your inheritance. Will dispute attorneys have extensive knowledge of estate law and can help identify potential weaknesses in a claimant’s case. Additionally, these lawyers hold valuable experiences in navigating through Iowa’s complex probate court procedures.
Testamentary Capacity Case Examples
In 1977, the Supreme Court of Iowa decided a landmark case regarding defenses against testamentary capacity claims. IN RE ESTATE OF SECRIST, one of the decedent’s children failed to provide the Court with “clear and convincing” evidence concerning the decedent’s cognitive ability at the time of the Will signing. The contestant in SECRIST also failed to call expert witnesses and cross-examine witnesses acquainted with the testator’s memory. The defense conversely proved that the testator was “lucid and aware” of his actions during estate planning and understood the natural objects of his bounty. As a result, the court validated the testator’s Will, declaring the deceased legally executed the testamentary documents presented in probate.
The Court of Appeals of Iowa cited SECRIST forty-two years later when deciding VAN GINKEL V. KRONTHAL. In this successful defense case against testamentary capacity claims, two disinherited siblings contested their mother’s Will based on her alleged mental incompetence. However, evidence proved the mother’s estate planning attorney had a doctor examine her for forty-five minutes on the date she signed the Will modification. The defense also challenged the claimant’s credibility by establishing one plaintiff had “disengaged” from the family for years while the other was physically violent with the deceased—revealing the real reason why the mother disinherited both claimants.
Defending testamentary capacity claims in Iowa probate court is important because it ensures the courts respect the testator’s last wishes and distribute estate property according to the deceased’s intent. A proper defense also protects heirs and beneficiaries from expensive legal challenges that could delay the distribution of assets.
When defending testamentary capacity claims in probate court, it’s important to focus on the testator’s mental state at the time of the Will’s creation. Defendants can use evidence of the testator’s ability to understand the nature and consequences of their actions to refute incapacity assertions. Additionally, credible medical records and expert testimony demonstrating capacity can reveal a claimant’s underlying motives for bringing the lawsuit to probate court.