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February 28, 2019

The Challenge of Proving Lack of Mental Capacity to Make a Will

One of the most common claims in probate litigation is that a will (or other document) is invalid because the decedent lacked mental capacity. That was the petitioner’s claim in In re Estate of Hubert Jenkins, Docket No. 341005, 2019 Westlaw 573393, (Mich. Ct. App. Feb. 12, 2019) (unpublished). Timothy Jenkins claimed that his uncle Hubert Jenkins’ 2014 will (leaving 10 percent of the estate to Timothy) was invalid due to mental incapacity. Timothy sought to invalidate the 2014 will and revive a prior 2013 will which left him 40 percent of the estate.
 
The personal representative of Hubert’s estate asked the probate court to dismiss Timothy’s petition, arguing that there was overwhelming evidence that Hubert possessed mental capacity. The personal representative offered testimony from the attorney who drafted the 2014 will that Hubert was mentally alert, had testamentary capacity, and provided directions as to the terms he wanted in his will. The personal representative also offered medical records reflecting that Hubert was “alert and oriented” at medical appointments during the same time period. The personal representative argued that Timothy had insufficient evidence of mental incapacity to take the case to trial.
 
In response to that motion, Timothy offered testimony from himself, Hubert’s sister-in-law, and Hubert’s neighbor regarding Hubert’s apparent paranoia, confusion, and “weird” behavior during the last few years of his life. However, the probate court found that Timothy’s evidence failed to create a genuine factual dispute for trial and dismissed the petition. Timothy appealed.
 
The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed that dismissal of Timothy’s lawsuit was proper, based on several different legal principles. First, Timothy’s evidence did not disprove any of the required testamentary capacity elements. Under Michigan statute, MCL 700.2501(2), “[a]n individual has sufficient mental capacity to make a will if all of the following requirements are met: (a) The individual has the ability to understand that he or she is providing for the disposition of his or her property after death[;] (b) The individual has the ability to know the nature and extent of his or her property[;] (c) The individual knows the natural objects of his or her bounty[; and] (d) The individual has the ability to understand in a reasonable manner the general nature and effect of his or her act in signing the will.” Timothy’s evidence did not show that Hubert lacked any of these capacities.
 
Second, Michigan law holds that “proof of old age, physical weakness, or forgetfulness is insufficient to establish a lack of mental capacity.” Jenkins at 3. Timothy’s evidence that Hubert suffered from occasional mental lapses was not sufficient to prove mental incapacity.
 
Third, Michigan law also holds that a witness’s opinion testimony regarding the decedent’s mental state is not entitled to be given any weight, when there is evidence that the decedent alone “directed his will and formed its provisions.” Ibid. Therefore, the opinion evidence of Timothy and his other witnesses had no evidentiary value, because the drafting attorney had testified that Hubert alone competently dictated the terms of his will.
 
What is to be learned from this case? The law sets forth a standard for testamentary capacity – i.e., the four factors set forth in MCL 700.2501(2). In order to prove lack of capacity, there must be evidence of the decedent’s mental state, which relates to one or more of the capacities set forth in the statute. The key question for bringing a will contest is whether there is evidence that the decedent lacked one or more of the capacities listed in the statute. The standard for testamentary capacity is not affected by occasional mental lapses, which sometimes are part of the aging process. Finally, the testimony of the attorney who drafted the will and the decedent’s medical records are two crucial pieces of evidence in a will contest, often determining the outcome of the case.
 
If you need assistance with a probate court matter, please contact Warner attorneys David Skidmore (dskidmore@wnj.com) or Laura Morris (lmorris@wnj.com).

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