Testamentary & Contractual Capacity
Wills and contracts are sometimes contested on the claim that the testator
was not mentally competent to draw up the will or contract in question.
Another question raised regarding each is the presence of undue influence
or duress limiting voluntariness. The resulting lawsuits focus on reconstructing
the state of mind of the testator at the time the will was created.
Some psychiatric conditions affecting testamentary capacity:
In 1948, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled the following,
in the case Goddard v. Dupree:
"Testamentary capacity requires ability on the part of the testator
to understand and carry in mind, in a general way, the nature and situation
of his property and his relations to those persons who would naturally
have some claim to his remembrance. It requires freedom from delusion
which is the effect of disease or weakness and which might influence
the disposition of his property. And it requires ability at the time
of execution of the alleged will to comprehend the nature of the act
of making a will." [ElderLaw Services, Vol. II, Issue
6, February 5, 1996]
With respect to testamentary capacity, as with other forms of competence,
the treating clinician should refer the patient to someone in a position
to make an objective evaluation. The treating clinician's proper concern
with relieving the patient's suffering precludes objectivity in conducting
a competency evaluation for deathbed will revisions. The clinician may
confuse competence to consent to treatment with competence to dispose
of property, each of which must be assessed independently.
The American Board of Medical Specialties, Board of Psychiatry and Neurology
now designates Forensic Psychiatry as a subspecialty. Certification in
both psychiatry and forensic psychiatry should be considered in designating
an expert to conduct the retrospective review and analysis necessary
for a neuropsychiatric autopsy. Such
dual certification can be helpful in carefully reconstructing the state
of those biopsychosocial factors comprising testamentary and contractual
capacity and vulnerability to undue influence most often, at issue in
will contests and contractual disputes.
Dr. Bursztajn has an active patient care practice and consults to physicians,
institutions, judges, and plaintiff and defense counsel nationally.