A will is perhaps the most useful estate planning document for most circumstances. In the absence of other testamentary paperwork, a will determines who inherits property from someone’s estate. It can name a specific party to serve as the personal representative of the estate. Wills can also designate guardians who can provide care for children or adults with special needs who depend on the testator.
Most families happily uphold the will drafted by a deceased loved one before their passing. However, sometimes there are questions about whether the document is valid and enforceable under current California law. Family sometimes initiate probate litigation based on allegations that the testator lacked the capacity to draft documents.
Who has testamentary capacity in California?
Most adults have testamentary capacity. California law specifically states that those who are 18 years of age and of sound mind can draft testamentary documents. Most will contests focused on capacity do not arise because the testator was a minor when they drafted their documents. Instead, the concern is that someone’s cognitive abilities or health challenges may have affected their ability to create legally enforceable documents that reflect their wishes and family circumstances.
There is a burden of proof on the individuals claiming a lack of capacity in a will contest scenario. Those filing a lawsuit typically need evidence supporting their allegations. Medical and financial records could help show that someone struggled with a debilitating medical condition or repeatedly made mistakes when managing their resources and obligations. Typically, there will need to be a correlation between the timing of the creation of the will and the decline in someone’s mental ability.
If family members can show that someone struggled to remember who their relatives were, what assets they held or what their estate plan would do, then they may have grounds to contest a will based on claims of a lack of capacity. The courts could either invalidate someone’s estate plan and uphold older documents or proceed with estate administration as though someone did not leave a will after their death.
Understanding the scenarios in which probate litigation is possible may help families more effectively uphold the true wishes of a recently deceased loved one.