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.