Contesting a Will by Way of Incompetence or Lack of Mental Capacity

In a recent post we discussed contesting a will if an interested party believes a decedent’s will is a defective instrument. In this post we address contesting a will by way of incompetence or lack of mental capacity. Will contests involving allegations of incompetence often involve estates of the elderly or those with mental health issues. If  a person does not have the requisite mental state to sign a will at such time that they formally execute their will, then an interested party with standing may initiate a will contest seeking to invalidate the will.

In Tennessee four general factors must be established in determining if a person is competent to execute a will. One must understand, generally: 1) the nature and extent of his or her property; 2) comprehend the relationship between himself and the proposed heirs 3) understand how he or she is disposing of their property; and 4) be able to relate this knowledge and demonstrate a desire to dispose of his or her property.

Under Tennessee law when contesting a will, simply offering proof that a decedent was suffering from physical weakness, old age, periodic confusion, poor judgment, substance abuse, or eccentricities is not necessarily enough to invalid the will. As stated in § 102 of Pritchard on Wills and Administration of Estates (7th ed., Jack W. Robinson, Sr., et al) “Anyone having the soundness of mind necessary to make a contract may execute a valid will, however inferior his capacity, or weak his understanding, either from natural or adventitious causes, and although at the time of executing the will he was incapable of transacting business generally.”

The issue of want of testamentary capacity is fact driven determined by the evidence submitted surrounding the testator’s health and character of habits.  In Tennessee, the law presumes sanity of the testator and the burden of overcoming this presumption is on the party contesting the will to present sufficient evidence which, in the eyes of the court, by the preponderance of the evidence, is in favor of insanity. If, however, a confidential relationship can be proved between the testator and one or more person’s benefiting from the will, then this burden can be lessened.

Successfully contesting a will on the basis of incompetence can be a complex and oftentimes emotional proposition to undertake, but oftentimes a necessary step to ensure a decedent’s desires are legally followed.

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