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How is diminished capacity established in a will contestment?

There is a range of circumstances that can lead up to the contestment of a will. Significant alterations, disinheritance of children or relatives and other unusual circumstances will at least raise eyebrows, and in some cases, lead to contestment. One of the most common arguments offered in support is that the decedent's diminished capacity was exploited. These are the criteria that constitute diminished capacity.

Inability to understand property

Testamentary capacity requires that a will's subject fully understand the extent, nature and value of his or her estate. If, at any point, the subject indicates that he or she does not understand this, additional precautions must be taken in order to ensure his or her true intent is specified in the will. This may include the presence of additional attorneys or examination by a physician to determine mental capacity.

Unfamiliarity with close relatives

The subject of an estate should understand and recognize the natural objects of the estate. Regardless of whether they are included in the will, the subject should be able to readily identify children, relatives and other close persons who may naturally be included. If he or she is unable to do so, it may be an indication of dementia or manipulation that can compromise his or her ability to clearly specify the terms of the will.

Insufficient mental capacity to form plans

Any indication that the subject of a will is struggling to understand the process should be addressed and treated carefully. If, for example, he or she seems unable to formulate plans regarding the distribution of property, it is likely an indication of diminished capacity. It is essential that a person form a plan independently if it is to be valid instruction for the execution of his or her will. If assistance is required, the presence of an attorney may be used to establish the validity of the document.

Misunderstanding regarding autonomy

Perhaps the most telling indication of diminished capacity is a person's apparent impression that they cannot make decisions regarding his or her will. If the will's subject does not understand that he or she can choose the estate's recipients, it is a sign that he or she is unable to autonomously dictate the execution of the will. In such cases, dementia or manipulation may be contributing factors, but the result is diminished capacity that must be addressed.

If you believe that a loved one's will has been affected by diminished capacity, you should take action and explore legal options. An attorney can help you protect your relative's estate.

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Mason & Helmers
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