Everything You Need to Know About Overcoming Presumptions of Testamentary Incapacity

For a Will to be valid in Iowa, an individual must hold testamentary “capacity” when executing his/her testamentary documents. Capacity under current case law holdings exists when the Will drafter:

  1. Understands the nature of the testamentary act.
  2. Recognizes the nature and scope of the estate.
  3. Holds a desire to dispose of estate assets.
  4. And, knows the natural objects of his/her bounty and its relation to the drafter.

The courts will always presume that testators possessed testamentary capacity during the execution of the Will. Estate beneficiaries thus only need to enter a decedent’s Will into evidence and have its probate recorded in Iowa District Court to assert the document’s validity. 

However, disinherited individuals or third parties may question a testator’s competence to meet the four requisites mentioned above and bring an action to set aside the decedent’s Will and its intended bequests. The contestants thereafter will bear the heavy burden of proving their testamentary incapacity claims. 

But complainants may sometimes shift said burden onto the proponents of the Will by asserting testamentary incapacity presumptions based on the testator’s physical or mental situation while alive. 

Presumptions of Testamentary Incapacity

When probate courts find the deceased held a preexisting incapacity during the time of the Will signing, the burden may shift to proponents to prove the deceased was of sound mind when planning his/her estate.

In the absence of proof showing the testator’s mental competence was actually impaired or seriously altered, the courts cannot presume testamentary incapacity existed because ailments (i.e., disabilities or drug or alcohol addictions) had incapacitated the deceased during his/her lifetime.

Furthermore, even when contestants establish mental incapacity as a general matter (i.e., the decedent was a ward in a conservatorship or guardianship), the only relevant issue in testamentary capacity proceedings is whether the testator actually lacked the requisite mental competence to draft or modify his/her testamentary documents.

Said probate rules protect the individuals’ right to dispose of their property as they wish. By not allowing the courts to presume testamentary incapacity automatically when heirs show the testator was in fragile condition while alive, contesters cannot easily set aside a testator’s last wishes just because they feel their inheritance was unequal or unjust.

Modern Presumption of Testamentary Incapacity Rulings

In re Guardianship & Conservatorship of Hanken (2019)

The Court of Appeals of Iowa recently upheld that individuals in a conservatorship may sometimes possess the requisite testamentary capacity to execute a Will. In 2016, an Iowa district court appointed a guardian and conservator to Diana Hanken’s estate after she suffered a stroke. The Court further found Hanken’s “decision-making” capacity was declining. After three months of being held in the conservatorship, Hanken initiated guardianship termination proceedings and concurrently petitioned the court to let her “execute a new [w]ill, if she so chooses.” 

During the trial, Hanken’s counsel negotiated an agreement with the Court that allowed Hanken’s guardianship and conservatorship to continue but called for a fiduciary removal and replacement. The Court of Appeals thereafter only needed to decide whether Hanken could execute a new will.

The Hanken Court first considered whether it could presume that the appellant held a testamentary incapacity to execute her Will based on her prior conservatorship situation.

According to the Court, Iowa statutes require wards to prove they hold “decision-making capacity” when petitioning for conservatorship termination. Capacity defined under the Code refers to the ward’s general health and safety.” In contrast, the courts cannot terminate guardianship and conservatorship when the ward cannot care for his/her personal safety or provide for his/her daily necessities (i.e., food, shelter, or personal/medical care). 

Hanken admitted during proceedings that her guardianship and conservatorship should continue, effectively conceding that she could not care for herself under Probate Code §633.675.

However, the Court recognized that an absence of decision-making capacity does not necessarily mean one possesses a testamentary incapacity to plan his/her estate per Probate Code§ 633.637

Individuals in a conservatorship, therefore, may properly execute a Will under the law in Iowa when the courts find the ward is mentally competent to do so—but testing for termination of guardianship is not the same as testing for testamentary capacity, according to the Court. 

Overcoming Presumptions of Testamentary Incapacity

In 1950, the Supreme Court of Iowa ruled in Ward v. Sears that evidence of guardianship is “presumptive proof of incompetency to make a will” and that the proponent of the Will bears the burden “to overcome such presumption.” In other words, when contestants successfully raise a presumption of testamentary incapacity based on the testator’s current or past conservatorship, proponents must prove that testator competency existed (or will exist) at the time of estate plan execution. 

In Hanken’s case, the proponent procured guardianship termination jointly with an equity declaration that would have granted her power to modify her Will. Since guardianship termination is also an equity remedy, the Court of Appeals of Iowa ruled it held standing to review both issues in one proceeding.

The Appellate Court relied on evidence from Hanken’s physiatrist when scrutinizing Hanken’s testamentary capacity “de novo.” The doctor testified Hanken was experiencing “progressive dementia … that hindered [her] ability to perform personal care tasks.”

The physician later admitted that Hanken’s dementia did not prevent her from recognizing the nature and scope of her estate assets and knowing the natural objects of her bounty. However, Hanken’s psychiatrist testified that his patient could not understand “the parties [beneficiaries] or assets directly” because Hanken’s diminished mental capacity impaired her from answering complex estate planning questions that required narrative answers.

Furthermore, when the court asked Hanken how she planned to modify her Will, the proponent confusingly replied, “I have to think about it . . . err … I haven’t made a final decision.”

The Court of Appeals ultimately found that Hanken failed to overcome the presumption of testamentary incapacity, not because she was in a conservatorship at the time of trial, but because “[she actually] did not have the mental competency to execute a new will.”

Let’s now compare the Hanken case to another probate dispute where a proponent overcame allegations of testamentary incapacity after the contestants asserted the deceased possessed a weakened mental and physical condition when executing his Will.

Matthewson v. Fahnestock

In a landmark decision, the Iowa Supreme Court allowed the probate of a Will executed by a testator who was a known alcoholic. Here, the Court ruled that the contestants did not present sufficient evidence for a jury to presume the deceased’s alcohol additions alone made him incapable of planning his estate. 

Sam Bowen died suddenly one day after executing his Will. The recorded testamentary document had effectively disinherited his nephew and brother and made a more distant relative the sole beneficiary of Bowen’s estate. 

The brother and nephew brought will dispute litigation during probate, arguing that Bowen lacked testamentary capacity to execute his estate plan because he was a well-documented alcoholic during the last 40 years of his life. 

In rebuttal, the proponents showed that Bowen would show up to work drunk only once every month. And testimony further proved that the testator was sobering up a few days before he executed the Will in controversy.

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed that the burden was on the contestants to show that Bowen had lost testamentary capacity when he drafted and executed his will.  

Accordingly, the Bowen Court held that the contestant’s singular argument that the testator suffered from lifelong alcoholism was insufficient to support their testamentary incapacity claims.

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