Testamentary Capacity

What is “testamentary capacity?”

Broadly, it is a concept that applies to someone’s mental and emotional state related to the signing of a Will.

If someone has testamentary capacity, then a Will (a “testament”) signed by that person should be legally-recognized as validly signed. If someone does not have testamentary capacity, and still signs a Will, that Will is invalid. That still doesn’t adequately define the concept, though. Fortunately, Section 230.2 of the proposed 2014 Texas Pattern Jury Charges does provide a definition of sorts with some degree of specificity.

It reads:

“A decedent has testamentary capacity if, at the time the decedent signs a will, the decedent—

  1. has sufficient mental ability to understand that he is making a will, and
  1. has sufficient mental ability to understand the effect of his act in making the will, and
  1. has sufficient mental ability to understand the general nature and extent of his property, and
  1. has sufficient mental ability to know his next of kin and natural objects of his bounty and their claims on him, and
  1. has sufficient memory to collect in his mind the elements of the business to be transacted and to be able to hold the elements long enough to perceive their obvious relation to each other and to form a reasonable judgment as to these elements.”

Even then, it is possible that no set of circumstances would ever neatly fit that definition. Whether or not a particular scenario satisfies that definition will be up to the judge or jury. So, perhaps you could sufficiently define “testamentary capacity” as “whatever the judge or jury thinks it is.”

Determinative Factors

To determine whether the Testator (the person to whom the Will belonged) had testamentary capacity, it is worth considering a variety of factors, and how they might apply to each unique case.

To keep it brief, it is helpful to begin by asking questions.

  • Did the Testator suffer mental health issues?
  • Was the Testator taking psychiatric drugs that affected memory or cognition?
  • Has the Testator ever been admitted to inpatient psychiatric care?
  • Does the Testator have a history of alcohol or drug abuse?
  • Has the Testator ever been formally adjudicated as incompetent?
  • Did the Testator have sufficient education and/or intelligence to understand the significance of the Will?
  • Did the Testator regularly make irrational statements prior to or around the time of the Will-signing?
  • Are there any inconsistencies with the Will and other documents that the Testator has prepared?

Those questions are at least helpful during an investigation about testamentary capacity. Having said that, the answers to those questions may not provide your case the proverbial “silver bullet.” All facts and circumstances need to be considered as a whole, and, again, the judge or jury will have to use their best judgment.