Proving (Or Disproving) Competency in Estate Law

As it relates to estate law, competency, also called “testamentary capacity,” is an important topic to address when it comes to the administration of a deceased person’s wishes. The grief of losing a loved one is painful enough without the discovery that someone took advantage of the deceased’s physical or mental state to alter the dying person’s will. Conversely, contesting a will on competency grounds is also one of the most common ways in which parties choose to challenge a will’s validity. Defending a will’s validity against such contests can also be difficult.

An estate plan—the will, the durable and health care powers of attorney, and other documents—can be thought of as a series of contracts that the deceased person entered into before their death. Like a contract, a will can have its validity or authenticity challenged before it is carried out on the grounds that the person executing it did not have the sound mind required by the law. For example, if the person signing the will (the “testator”) was suffering from a mental illness at the time that made them incapable of understanding the effects of their actions, a party with an interest in the will can formally contest the will’s validity on these grounds.

Elements of Competency

For a party to establish that the testator lacked the mental capacity to make a valid will, you must be able to show that one of the following factors is NOT true at the time the deceased executed the will:

  1. The deceased understood who his or her closest surviving family members were;
  2. The deceased understood the kind, nature and extent of the property he or she owned;
  3. The deceased understood that they were executing a will that would transfer their property to the recipients upon the testator’s death;
  4. The deceased understood the effect that executing a will would have on his or her estate.
Burden for Disproving Competency

When it comes to proving the testator’s competency, the law is harshest upon the person seeking to contest the will. In North Carolina, the law presumes that the deceased had the mental capacity to execute a will when they did so, and it is up to the person challenging the will to prove that it is “more likely than not” that the deceased lacked the required capacity. This burden of proof is easier to reach than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” required in criminal cases; rather, the petitioner need only show that the greater weight of the evidence indicates that the deceased did not have capacity.

However, this can still be a heavy burden to prove. North Carolina’s courts have recognized that even an “absolute lunatic” can create a valid will as long as they do so during a lucid period. Courts also usually require specific evidence that the deceased did not understand at least one (1) of the four (4) capacity requirements listed above. For example, in one North Carolina case the deceased’s children contested their mother’s will when she left all of her property to her caretaker. The children alleged that their mother had become unable to make reasonable decisions, often did not know what she was doing, and could not distinguish her daughters from one another. Despite this, the appellate court refused to find incapacity because they had presented only general, and no specific, evidence that their mother lacked the capacity to understand the four (4) capacity requirements listed above. Overcoming the legal presumption of competency can be a high bar, and if you are attempting to contest a will because you think your loved one’s incapacity was taken advantage of it is critical to have an estate law attorney on your side.

Competency often dovetails with the issue of whether the testator was unduly influenced in creating or changing their will. The testator’s mental and/or physical competency is one of a number of factors North Carolina’s courts will look to in determining whether or not a contested will exhibits signs of undue influence. In light of the person’s competency, the court will weigh other factors such as whether the would-be beneficiary had almost exclusive access to and control over the defendant (such as a caretaker); whether the would-be beneficiary helped the deceased execute their will; and whether the will ignores or attempts to disinherit the deceased’s natural heirs in favor of someone to whom they are not biologically or legally related.

If you are dealing with a contested will, are the one doing the contesting, or have other competency issues relating to a loved one’s estate, please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC for a consultation with one of our estate law attorneys at our offices in Charlotte, Mooresville, or Monroe, North Carolina.