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When can people contest a will based on a lack of capacity?

On Behalf of | Feb 2, 2024 | Estate Litigation |

There are sometimes reasons why beneficiaries or family members may have questions about someone’s will. They may believe that fraud has occurred. Other times, they may suspect that a family member or caregiver inappropriately influenced a testator.

Occasionally, the issue at hand does not necessarily relate to outside parties but rather to the condition of the testator when they drafted the documents. Adults in California typically have the right to create estate plans and other contracts on their own behalf. However, due to age, injury or health conditions may eventually lose the testamentary capacity that allows them to draft such documents.

Family members who believe someone could not act in their own best interests due to cognitive decline may be able to challenge or contest a will based on the decedent’s lack of testamentary capacity. When are such challenges possible in California?

There is an assumption that someone has capacity

There is an assumption that an adult has the testamentary capacity necessary to enter into a contract or establish an estate plan. The plaintiffs initiating a will contest therefore have to meet a burden of proof demonstrating that the opposite is actually true.

When there are questions about testamentary capacity in California, the state looks at certain specific factors. Those factors include the testator’s ability to communicate with others and comprehend the impact of their decisions. Typically, the testator must be aware of how their choices could affect them and their family members or beneficiaries.

That requirement means that they need to know who is in their family, what assets they intend to distribute and how the choices they make could affect the people they know. People in a variety of scenarios may not actually meet those standards.

Debilitating medical conditions ranging from dementia to traumatic brain injuries could compromise someone’s ability to fully comprehend the nature of the decisions they make and what impact those choices could have on their legacy and their beneficiaries. Witnesses who can attest to someone’s cognitive decline or medical limitations could help convince the courts that someone did not have the necessary capacity to draft binding and enforceable documents when they created their will.

Raising questions about a testator’s capacity could help people stand up for a loved one’s true intentions by convincing the courts to set aside a document created when a testator could not understand its implications.