Two Extraordinary Cases That Laid Down Testamentary Capacity Precedent in Iowa

We receive many testamentary capacity questions at the Smith Law Firm. Beneficiaries should worry about their inheritance when an interested party challenges the deceased’s sound mind and intent with respect to a will in probate proceedings.

In theory, the law is straightforward—if the testator was mentally competent when he planned and executed his will, then the will is valid—future incapacity is accordingly never an issue because the courts assume people execute their testamentary documents while they’re mentally healthy to make sure their sound intent protects their estate if they later become incapacitated.

Will dispute litigation arises when interested parties attack the testator’s competence or allege the deceased may have held a sound mind when executing the will, but later became legally incompetent and changed it—testamentary capacity questions are thus not so simple to answer when viewing them from the defendant’s eyes.

Probate courts in Iowa have the authority to dismiss a will in its entirety of strike parts of it if a will challenger proves the document does not reflect the testator’s sound mind or original intent.

Let’s examine two case studies that affirm this legal precedent…

I Took Care of My Disabled Mother in Good Faith, Why Did the Courts Reduce My Inheritance?

In Algoe v. Johnson (Iowa App., 2010), William Johnson appealed a lower court decision that held his mother lacked the testamentary capacity to alter her will.

The testamentary document in question replaced an earlier will and conveyed all assets and real property to Johnson. Probate Judge Keller however set aside the document and ordered the executor to distribute mother’s estate equally among the deceased’s siblings, complying with mother’s original intent.

The Court of Appeals of Iowa considered three elements when determining whether the mother carried the legal mental capacity to revoke her old will and replace it with a new one:

  1. Presence of Sound Mind
    Appellant Judge Amanda Porterfield held the Court must first establish whether Johnson’s mother held a sound mind to know what she was doing when she modified her will.Iowa case law precedent affirms an individual must “know and understand the nature of the instrument (then) being executed” because the decisions they make effect the entirety of their estate. In other words, Johnson’s mother must have understood her actions would disinherit her daughters and convey their future assets to her son.

    The challengers presented medical evidence in the lower court showing six years before changing her will the mother suffered a severe stroke that rendered her unable to speak or walk.

    In Judge Porterfield’s opinion, the mother’s will would become “self-testifying” and would satisfy legal capacity requirements if she could comprehend the written guarantee “of sound mind and memory,” cited in the first line of her testamentary document—the evidence shows mother’s limited mental condition present when she altered the will prevented her from “considering and accepting” this written promise, according to the Court.

  2. Presence of Free Will
    The Court next examined whether the mother modified her testamentary documents through her own free will. Porterfield held that to intelligently and voluntarily execute a will, “a higher degree of mental competence is required.”Probate judges therefore could set aside the mother’s will if they found her incapacity allowed others to induce her into making changes, even when the influencer acted in good faith, according to Porterfield.

    Here, the mother required extensive care after her stroke, and Johnson became her sole caretaker. Johnson also obtained power of attorney authority over his mother’s financial affairs and personally drafted the will in controversy for her mother to sign.

    There was no direct evidence showing Johnson acted in bad faith when helping his mother modify her will after her stroke—he did however, according to Porterfield, fail to meet his burden in showing the lower court that his mother acted voluntarily when disinheriting his sisters, making the question whether Johnson participated in undue influence a moot issue.

  3. Presence of Duress
    Finally, Porterfield affirmed the courts can invalidate wills that testators execute under duress, regardless of whether a malefactor acted in good faith or whether no aggression took place.Johnson’s own testimony revealed he discussed and reviewed the new will with his mother “three or four times each day for three to four weeks prior to the execution,“ an unusual act, according to the probate court, given Johnson affirmed prior that his mother was competent and able to read at the time when she altered her will.

    So why was it necessary for Johnson to explain the new testamentary document to his mother “63 times before its execution” if she was already competent, Judge Keller asked.

    The question here was not whether the mother was so incapacitated that she needed her son to go over the new will with her 63 times, but rather whether Johnson’s repetitive behavior constituted sufficient duress and coercion to invalidate the will—the Court held that Johnson most likely acted in good faith, but the pressure he placed on his mother most likely affected her capacity and influenced her intent on how to convey assets in the new will.


My Brother Had Psychosis, Is His Will Legitimate?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, three percent of the US population experience at least one psychotic episode during their lives; yet, the same statistics show antipsychotic medications and psychotherapy can help such individuals live productive and normal lives.

Interested parties often ask our estate dispute attorneys if the Iowa courts will accept a will into probate if the testator suffered from bouts of severe mental illness throughout his life.

The answer again is simple—if the deceased executed his or her will while incapacited from a mental illness, the courts will not accept the document in probate.

However, may the courts hold a mentally ill person was of sound mind when planning his or her estate if he or she experienced a moment of clarity while battling psychosis?

YES!—the Iowa courts have long recognized that a diagnosis of mental illness alone does not prove the decedent lacked testamentary capacity.

In the Matter of the Estate of Freedman Adams (2019), Dorothy Fisher, asked the probate court to set aside her brother’s will, declare his estate intestate, and rule her brother’s testamentary documents were invalid because of incapacity.

Judge Lingreen dismissed Fisher’s challenges and allowed her brother’s will to enter probate as is. Fisher then appealed Lingreen’s decision to the Court of Appeals in Iowa.

Despite medical evidence confirming a physician had diagnosed the brother having paranoia schizophrenia in 1958, appellate Judge Doyle affirmed Lingreen’s rulings for the following four reasons:

  1. The brother understood the consequences of executing the will.
    Medical evidence indicated the decedent scored 13 out of possible 15 points in cognitive ability tests shortly before executing his will. Doyle affirmed the brother accordingly held “average” intelligence and an “intact” short-term memory gained from the antipsychotic and anti-anxiety medication the brother took to control his chronic mental illness—the deceased therefore knew the will in controversy would consequently impact Fisher’s inheritance, according to the Court.
  2. The brother understood the property he was conveying after death.
    Eleven years before drafting the testamentary document in controversy, the decedent properly executed an earlier will. Upon comparison, the estate assets in both wills were similar—Doyle therefore affirmed the deceased understood the nature and extent of his property.
  3. The brother consciously knew who the closest surviving members in his family were.
    Just before the brother signed his will, his attorney conducted competency assessments. The brother passed the exams and afterward directed his lawyer to bequeath his estate to Fischer and his three nephews—the decedent accordingly also knew the natural objects of his bounty, the Court affirmed.
  4. The brother consciously reduced Fisher’s inheritance.
    Finally, the brother told his lawyer he wanted fifty percent of his estate to go to his nephews and “the rest of his property should go to his sister”—Doyle thus held that the decenant knew the modifications in his new will would reduce Fisher’s inheritance.

So let’s complicate our simple answer to the above testamentary capacity question a bit…

Mental health issues and bizarre behavior do not automatically render testators incompetent to execute their testamentary documents. The courts therefore will presume testators held the mental capacity to plan their estates unless will challengers can satisfy their burden to prove otherwise.