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Effects of Testamentary Capacity and Undue Influence on Wills

Testamentary capacity refers to a person’s ability to create a valid will. This ability deals both with being of legal age to create a will (18) and the mental capacity of the person making the will. Undue Influence occurs when a person acts under the influence of another rather than of their own free will or without knowledge of the consequences of their actions. Can a person both lack testamentary capacity and be subject to undue influence? In re Estate of Lynch answers this question.

Probate Case:

In Re Estate of Lynch, 350 S.W.3d 130 (Tex. App. 2011)

Facts of the case

Wilbur Lynch, a retired pilot, suffered a stroke in 1995. After his stroke, one of his three daughters, Patricia, would fly back and forth from Florida (where she lived) to Boerne, Texas (where Wilbur lived) to take care of him. In March of 2000, Wilbur’s wife died, and one of Wilbur’s other daughters, Tracy, and her children moved in with Wilbur to care for him. At this time, Wilbur could not do anything by himself and needed assistance for all day to day tasks.

In November of 2000, Wilbur filed an affidavit (a written statement confirmed under oath) giving Tracy his house. In 2001, the entire family (Wilbur and his three daughters) met with an estate planning attorney to create a trust that required the unanimous consent of all three daughters to dispose of Wilbur’s estate. Wilbur executed the will which provided that his three daughters would have equal shares of his estate, and he filed a deed that gave Tracy his house.

In May of 2001, a caregiver who was an experienced geriatric nurse’s aide was hired to take care of Wilbur on the weekdays. She stated that Wilbur had good days and bad days. Also according to her, since one of her responsibilities was taking Wilbur to doctors’ appointments, none of the doctors ever discussed the possibility that Wilbur may suffer from dementia. In 2003, Wilbur’s attorney who helped him create a will that same year hired a clinical psychologist to conduct a testamentary capacity evaluation on Wilbur. The psychologist stated that there was no reason to question the testamentary capacity of Wilbur at this time or for the foreseeable future so long as no unexpected medical situations occur. Wilbur executed the will four days later, and he died in 2005 at the age of ninety-two.

Two of Wilbur’s daughters, Peggy and Patricia, brought suit against Tracy when Tracy applied to probate the 2003 will. They argued their father lacked testamentary capacity to execute the 2003 will as he was acting under undue influence by Tracy. A jury found a verdict in favor of Peggy and Patricia, and Tracy appealed. Tracy argued that because her father lacked testamentary capacity that he could not be under undue influence. The court of appeals found that testamentary capacity and undue influence are not mutually exclusive, and that their father both lacked testamentary capacity and was acting under undue influence by Tracy.

What This Case Means

Testamentary Capacity and Undue Influence are not mutually exclusive:

The court found that a person could both lack testamentary capacity and be subject to undue influence as these are two independent and distinct grounds for avoiding a will. They found and cited that there have been several courts that found a person experienced both in a case. The court stated that while the Supreme Court has said things where undue influence may imply the existence of a sound mind, there has never been anything stated about undue influence requiring a sound mind. Therefore, a person can be of unsound mind or mental incapacity and still be subject to undue influence.

Testamentary Capacity:

Sufficient testamentary capacity requires that a person has the ability to understand the business in which he is engaged, understand the effect of the act in making a will, understand the general nature and extent of his property, know his next of kin and the natural objects of his bounty and the claims upon him, and collect in his mind the elements of the business to be transacted and hold them long enough to perceive their obvious relation to each other and to form a reasonable judgment about them. When a contest is filed after a will has been admitted to probate, the burden of proof is on the person contesting to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the will is invalid. Meaning that they must prove there is more than a 50% chance the claim is true. The test for legal sufficiency is whether the evidence at trial would enable reasonable and fair-minded people to reach the verdict under review.

Here, the evidence given that was found sufficient to prove lack of testamentary capacity was from a geriatric physicist named Dr. Leatherman. Dr. Leatherman had never met Wilbur, but she reviewed all of his medical records and the depositions form his daughters, his sister, his caregiver, his lawyers, and the other doctors who treated him. Dr. Leatherman stated that everything Wilbur suffered from after his stroke and his actions and behavior were indicative of Dementia, and that although there were no official medical records that stated he had dementia that he had been diagnosed with it both prior to and after writing his 2003 will. Dr. Leatherman noticed several inconsistencies in Wilbur’s behavior and what he had written in his will. For example, Wilbur spoke often of his younger sister and how much he loved her, but she was not mentioned anywhere in his will. This was a sign that Wilbur lacked the element of testamentary capacity that requires a person to know his next of kin and the natural objects of his bounty and the claims upon him.

Dr. Leatherman also noticed that things Wilbur said in his will were not consistent with his responses to things he said in his testamentary capacity evaluation. He made statements that he had no other significant relationships or organizations than those listed in his will, and that he wanted his assets held in trust even though in his will he stated that all remaining assets and accumulating income would be free form trust and be distributed outright to Tracy. The court found these elements indicative of lacking testamentary capacity and because they found that testamentary capacity and undue influence are not mutually exclusive, Tracy’s appeal was denied.

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Related Questions

What are the four elements of undue influence?

Undue influence is a legal concept that refers to improper influence applied by one party on another, which results in the victim making an uninformed decision. This type of abuse is particularly prevalent in personal injury and probate law.

For example, let’s say that Helen persuades her sister, Alice, to choose a particular lawyer to handle her estate. Alice’s choices were limited because Helen kept her away from other qualified lawyers. By preventing Alice from speaking to any other lawyers and getting their opinions, and by plying her with food, beverages and gifts, Helen was able to persuade Alice to choose the lawyer that Helen wanted. In this situation, there are four elements of undue influence, which are:

1. The victim must be vulnerable.

2. The victim must be isolated from other potential sources of help or information.

3. The actor must apply pressure on the victim, usually through persuasion, manipulation, or threats.

4. The actor must have some sort of advantage over the victim, such as a position of power or authority, knowledge that the victim does not have, or a closer relationship to the victim than others do.

What is meant by testamentary capacity?

Testamentary capacity is the legal term used to describe a person’s ability to make a valid will. A person must have the mental capacity to understand the nature and effect of making a will and the extent of their property and estate.

What is the difference between legal capacity and testamentary capacity?

In Texas, there is a difference between these two capacities.

Legal capacity is the mental state of being legally competent to understand the nature and consequences of an action. In Texas, a person with legal capacity has the ability to enter into a binding contract, to take care of his or her own needs and to exercise legal rights and privileges. A person who has been adjudicated mentally incompetent lacks legal capacity.

The issue of testamentary capacity is related to the making of a last will and testament. A person with testamentary capacity intends to create a valid will, understands that he or she is making a will and has taken the actions necessary to make it valid. Testamentary capacity depends on each person’s individual circumstances.

How much does a will cost?

A will is an important tool that can be affordable and useful. The cost of a will depends on the location of attorney and the time it takes to prepare the will. Legal fees are usually less than $1,000 for a basic will.

What is presumed undue influence?

Presumed undue influence is a legal doctrine that says that when someone is in a position of power over another person, and they use that power to get the person to do something they wouldn’t normally do, the courts will presume that the person was unduly influenced.

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