Will contests often focus on questions about whether the person who executed the will had the mental capacity required to execute the will.
These post-death legal disputes can be particularly contentious. They delve into the life circumstances and affairs of the deceased. Facts matter in these cases.
This raises questions as to what facts matter? It also begs the question as to whether facts that pre-date the date the will was executed can be considered.
The case of Croucher v. Croucher, 660 S.W.2d 55 (Tex. 1983) provides an opportunity to consider these questions.
Facts & Procedural History
This case involves a dispute of a decedent’s estate between his two adult sons from a previous marriage and his subsequent wife. This is the typical fact pattern for a will contest.
The dispute was about whether the decedent possessed testamentary capacity at the time he executed his Will. There was a Will presented by the decedent’s wife that would have been deemed valid if the two sons had no evidence that their father lacked testamentary capacity at the time he authored and signed the Will.
The Will was challenged by the decedent’s sons before the Will was admitted to probate. The two sons of the descendent presented evidence that their father’s health had declined significantly in the months preceding his death. They claimed that this evidence proved he was unable to consent to the Will in question.
A jury in the trial court ruled that the Will should not be considered valid, in favor of the two sons. Then the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling, in favor of the wife.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of Texas had to decide whether the appeals court was correct in their judgment to reverse the trial court’s decision to deem the Will invalid due to lack of testamentary capacity.
Testator’s Medical Issues
The medical record starts in December of 1979. The decedent had two toes amputated due to diabetes and received a brain scan during this hospital visit. Doctors reported that he had diminished blood flow to the brain in the right carotid artery. Another brain scan done shortly thereafter showed diminished flow in the corresponding left artery.
Then, he was readmitted in early March, and an arteriogram revealed that his right internal carotid artery was completely occluded. The report from a neurological examination done on that occasion recited that the decedent’s “memory was sketchy and he seemed at times confused.”
The decedent then executed the will in question on July 7, 1980. Slightly over a month later, on August 12, he was admitted to the hospital once again. The evidence indicates that he had suffered a stroke affecting his speech and memory. The hospital admission report stated that he was suffering from “severe arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease,” and had been undergoing decreasing mental status for one month. Sadly, he then died on August 17, 1980.
There were reports from witnesses that the decedent possessed testamentary capacity around the time he executed his Will. However, the testimony was speculative.
Requirements Under Texas Law to Prove Testamentary Capacity
Under Texas law, a person must meet the requirements of testamentary capacity to legally execute a will.
Testamentary capacity refers to the mental ability to understand the consequences of their actions and make necessary decisions regarding a Will at the time of execution.
The reason to require the testamentary capacity of an individual is to prevent coercion or fraud. If a descendent of the deceased person believes that the deceased was not of sound mind at the time of execution, they can challenge the Will’s validity for a lack of testamentary capacity.
Legal requirements to prove testamentary capacity include the following of the testator:
- be able to understand they are creating a Will,
- understand the effect of your actions by creating said will,
- identify their next of kin and the natural objects of their estate or otherwise, the closest surviving members of his or her family, and
- be able to understand the practical effects of the decision they are making.
There are quite a few court cases that apply these factors.
Who has the Burden of Proof to Show Capacity to Execute a Will?
This case involved a self-proved will. A self-proved will includes language and signatures by witnesses as to the testator’s mental capacity. Once a self-proved will is admitted to probate, the burden shifts to the party challenging the will to show that the will is invalid due to lack of mental capacity. You can read According to Siegler v. Siegler, 391 S.W.2d 403 (Tex. 1965) to find this rule. This is why it is advisable to file a will contest immediately once a party tries to admit an invalid will to probate.
Absent a self-proving will, the burden is on the proponent of the will to establish that the will is valid. The burden is also on the proponent if the will has not yet been admitted to probate. That is the situation here. The self-proved Will was not yet admitted to probate. Thus, the burden of proving testamentary capacity is on the decedent’s wife. The question for the supreme court was whether she established as a matter of law that her husband had testamentary capacity on the date the Will was executed.
Judging a Claim of Lack of Testamentary Capacity
This brings us back to the Croucher v. Croucher case. In Croucher, the supreme court addresses the two questions that have to be considered in determining whether someone has the mental capacity to execute a will.
- Was the evidence of the kind that would indicate a lack of testamentary capacity?
- If so, was that evidence probative of the decedent’s capacity, or lack thereof, when the will was executed?
Based on the evidence in the record, the supreme court answered yes to both questions. This evidence included the medical reports that stated the decedent likely suffered from diminished mental capacity from the totality of medical issues he suffered.
The court relied on evidence of incompetency years before the date the Will was executed. The courts have held that evidence of incompetency at other times can be used to establish incompetency on the day the will was executed if it “demonstrates that the condition persists and ‘has some probability of being the same condition which obtained at the time of the will’s making.” Lee v. Lee, 424 S.W.2d 609 (Tex.1968).
The Will was found to be invalid in this case. The decedent is said to have died intestate, without a Will, and the assets are divided according to Texas intestacy law.
This case shows how difficult will contest cases can be. It can be difficult to establish that the decedent had testamentary capacity and when they did not.
This case also shows why it is advisable to contest a will sooner rather than later. Waiting to after the will is admitted to probate makes the task more difficult.
Last, this case shows why advance estate planning is needed when there could be any argument about mental capacity. Estate planning early in life can be a great way to avoid a potentially lengthy court battle to prove a decedent’s mental state was sufficient to allow them to execute their Will.