What Everyone Should Know About Insane Delusions in Testamentary Capacity

The law obligates estate planning attorneys to make a reasonable attempt to affirm testamentary capacity among older or ill clients before drafting their wills and again before execution.
In Iowa, testators need only show mental competence during estate planning activities, meaning even if testators have a history of mental illness, they may draft, alter or revoke their will or trust documents if they’re experiencing a lucid interval while doing so.

But what happens to the testamentary document when evidence reveals the testator/testatrix was only partially sane or suffered from insane delusions while planning his/her estate?

The Iowa courts have both upheld in part and invalidated entirely the testamentary documents of testators found suffering from partial mental illness during estate planning activities.
Probate litigation verdicts on the subject have further shown us that insane delusion claims are comparable but not the same as lack of testamentary capacity lawsuits—testators can still carry the requisite capacity to plan their estates despite suffering from a partial mental impairment whereas favorable verdicts in testamentary capacity actions usually result in a complete invalidation of the will or trust.
Let’s jump into the seldom talked-about issue of partial “sound mind” while planning estates to gain better perspective on insane delusion complaints brought by interested parties during probate proceedings.

Insane Delusion Explained

Probate lawyers use the term insane delusion to define a testator’s wrongful perception of reality that he/she held while planning his/her estate.
The testator’s steadfast belief in such bizarre or assumed truths, by itself, may appear like sufferance of a mental disorder. Upon further inquiry, however, a testator’s disorder of the mind may lean more towards an “extreme improbability” when comparing it to rightful facts and reason.
Ordinary delusions occur when one’s solid belief cannot change, even when another presents the person with conflicting evidence contrary to his/her own conviction. This differs from insane delusions, which are merely a person’s odd or strongly held ideas that are clearly unlikely.
Insane delusions also cannot be unsubstantiated beliefs that every rational person agrees to be true.
This means the fact finders must disregard the testator’s religious convictions, oddities, bias and opinions when determining if his/her bequest was an insane delusion, since almost all sane people possess these same qualities and beliefs.
Unfounded belief questions however are subjective by nature, and most fact finders will find a testator’s bequeath was an insane delusion if the belief is one that they do not personally hold or if the oddity or opinion in controversy was uncommon.

Scrutinizing Insane Delusions from Ordinary Delusional Behavior

Insane delusion challenges sometimes invite frivolous lawsuits with intent to hijack estate assets.
For this reason, probate courts must weigh the testator’s “degree of conviction” while he/she held the delusion before deciding whether to set aside a will entirely or only in part.
However, it’s not a simple task to determine whether a testator held permissible overvalued ideas or instead possessed delusional beliefs requiring an invalidation of testamentary documents.
People without serious mental illnesses sometimes experience temporary delusions. But this does not mean they lack testamentary capacity to plan their estates, even when their choices on administering assets seem strange or wrong to the average person.
Iowa probate courts may exercise one of two common law tests when reviewing the testator’s degree of conviction:

  • Rational Person Test—explores whether a reasonable person would have administered his/her estate property and assets in the manner as the testator did.
  • Factual Basis Test—examines whether any reasonable explanation exists to justify why the testator disposed his/her assets as provided for in the will.

The rational person test defers the question of insane delusion to the fact finders who often find in favor of the challenger. Factual basis test on the other hand can confirm testamentary documents if the court finds any reasonable grounds to support the testator’s bequeaths.
Similar to the factual basis test, causation analysis may further reveal whether challengers would have taken from the will “but for” the insane delusion.
Here, if evidence proves the deceased’s strongly held ideas only slightly caused a partial or complete disinheritance to the interested party, the court will usually take action.
Such a “but-for” standard also places the evidence in a narrower scope, and it supports the challenger’s contention—how is it possible that the insane delusion did not affect his/her inheritance?
With all that said, probate courts strongly refrain from rewriting testamentary documents, which has caused the judiciary to maintain that even irrational testators have a right to dispose of their property as they wish.

Yet, when will challengers prove that he/she would have inherited if the testator had not suffered from an insane delusion, the law compels the courts to provide proper relief.

Real Life Insane Delusion Cases in Estate law

Insane delusion challenges are fact-sensitive lawsuits that probate judges rarely dismiss on summary judgment.
When the testator’s insane delusion affects a beneficiary’s inheritance, the courts may strike the testamentary document in whole or may set aside the part influenced by the deceased’s unstable mind.

The Supreme Court of Indiana first took on insane delusion claims in estate law over one hundred and fifty years ago when deciding Addington v. Wilson (Indiana 1854). Here, the Court found a testator held testamentary capacity even though he disinherited his two daughters after sincerely believing they were witches.
Since “distinguished jurists and religious figures” actually believed in witchcraft at the time, the testator’s same belief did not disqualify him from leaving his daughters out of his will, according to the Court.

In its conclusion, the Robertson Court cited similar circumstances In re Russell’s Estate (California 1922) where a testator considered the challenger his daughter for forty years but started believing that she had no relation to him at the time he planned his estate.

The Courts held in those cases that there was no “rational basis whatsoever” for the testators to change their beliefs, thus both suffered from insane delusions.

In our state, the Iowa Court of Appeals held in Riley v. Casey (Iowa 1919) that an insane delusion differs from a testator’s mistake in administering assets after two relatives sued because the testator mistakenly believed they had already received property from their deceased grandmother.

According to the Court, testators suffering from an insane delusion would not change their mind regarding the delusion when presented with contrary evidence, whereas people who make mistakes while planning their estates are capable correcting the error after learning the truth—accordingly, the challenger’s evidence in Riley showing proof of the testator’s mistake was not of itself confirmation of an insane delusion.

Finally, two daughters most recently in Iowa claimed their mother suffered from an insane delusion after disinheriting them in a modified will. The Iowa Court of Appeals in this case refused to set aside the will, holding In the Matter of Estate of Hetrick (Iowa 2010) that the two challengers failed to prove their mother was partially sane when drafting her testamentary documents.

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