Wills, Estates, and Trusts

A Tennessee court ruled that a will containing a gift to a church was valid even though the deceased was suffering from a mild form of senile dementia at the time she signed the will.

Church Law and Tax 2000-05-01

Wills, Estates, and Trusts

Key point. A person may have the mental capacity to execute a will even if he or she is suffering from mild forms of senile dementia.

A Tennessee court ruled that a will containing a gift to a church was valid even though the deceased was suffering from a mild form of senile dementia at the time she signed the will. An elderly woman (the “deceased”) executed a will in which she left a portion of her estate to her church. A relative challenged the validity of the will, claiming that the deceased was suffering from senile dementia when the will was signed. The deceased’s doctor testified that he had treated the deceased for several years, and that “slowly over the course of time when I began treating her, she slowly developed progressively worse dementia.” The doctor conceded that he had not seen the deceased during the final two years of her life, but he testified that he “expected that her mental and emotional condition would have deteriorated during that time.” The relative offered evidence that the deceased had been diagnosed with senile dementia three years before signing her will, and that such a condition worsens with time. She introduced several hospital and nursing home documents indicating that the deceased was confused and disoriented at times. She also offered evidence of the deceased’s unusual behavior, and to being confused as to the identity of some persons. She offered evidence that the deceased had “good days and bad days.” Despite this evidence, the trial court ruled that the relative failed to prove that the deceased lacked the mental competency to execute a will, and the case was appealed.

The court began its opinion by noting that “while evidence regarding factors such as physical weakness or disease, old age, blunt perception or failing mind and memory is admissible on the issue of testamentary capacity, it is not conclusive and the testator is not thereby rendered incompetent if her mind is sufficiently sound to enable her to know and understand what she is doing.” It noted that “where the maker of the will is aged, sick and infirm or unable to read and write by reason of blindness or illiteracy,” the executor has “the burden of showing the testator comprehended the contents of the will at the time of execution.” The court concluded that this test was met. It pointed to the following factors: (1) The attorney who prepared the will testified that the deceased specifically informed him of what she wanted in her will. He was satisfied that “she knew what property she had and the disposition she wanted to make of it.” (2) The deceased signed the will in her room at a nursing home, and a woman who was present at the signing testified that the deceased told her that “she understood what she was doing in the will.” (3) Staff members at the nursing home testified that the deceased had the capacity to make a will at the time she signed it. (4) The executor presented documentary evidence that the deceased was alert and oriented as to time and place.

Application. This case addresses important questions of the mental capacity to make a will and the kinds of evidence that the courts will consider in making such a determination. As our society ages, such cases will become more frequent, and many will involve gifts to churches. This case illustrates how there may be conflicting evidence regarding an elderly person’s mental capacity. It also demonstrates that the standard of mental capacity to sign a will is relatively low, and that persons exhibiting some of the symptoms of senile dementia may have sufficient capacity to sign a will so long as there is credible evidence that (1) they had a basic understanding of the nature of their assets and the contents of the will, (2) they were familiar with their relatives, and (3) the will’s distribution of their estate reflected their wishes. The deciding factor in such cases is the strength of the testimony of persons who were close to the deceased at the time the will was signed, including doctors, neighbors, friends, family, and nursing home staff. Street v. Waddell, 3 S.W.3d 504 (Tenn. App. 1999).

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