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Legal Standards for Testamentary Capacity

By: Brandan J. Pratt, Esq., CFP

Florida is home to a large population of retirees, and people are living longer and longer. Many people live well into their late 80’s and 90’s. There is a correlation between age and dementia. Therefore, there is a good chance that someone who wants to sign estate planning documents in their late 80’s or 90’s has some degree of dementia. It can be confusing as to whether someone who has dementia, has the requisite mental capacity to sign estate planning documents. This is known as “testamentary capacity”. In Raimi v. Furlong, 702 So. 2d 1273, 1286 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3d Dist. 1997), the Third District Court of Appeal established the standards for a determination of “testamentary capacity” and explained the idea of having a “lucid interval.” It stated the following:

The right to dispose of one’s property by will is highly valuable and it is the policy of the law to hold a last will and testament good wherever possible. To execute a valid will, the testator need only have testamentary capacity (that is, be of “sound mind”) which has been described as having the ability to mentally understand in a general way (1) the nature and extent of the property to be disposed of, (2) the testator’s relation to those who would naturally claim a substantial benefit from his will, and (3) a general understanding of the practical effect of the will as executed. A testator may still have testamentary capacity to execute a valid will even though he may frequently be intoxicated, use narcotics, have an enfeebled mind, failing memory, or vacillating judgment. Moreover, an insane individual or one who exhibits “queer conduct” may execute a valid will as long as it is done during a lucid interval. Indeed, it is only critical that the testator possess testamentary capacity at the time of the execution of the will.

In Miami Rescue Mission, Inc. v. Roberts, 943 So. 2d 274 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3d Dist. 2006), the Third District Court of Appeals expanded on holding in Raimi v. Furlong, by explaining the concept of an “insane delusion.” The Third District Court of Appeals stated that:

Where there is an insane delusion in regard to one who is the object of a testator’s bounty, which causes him to make a will he would not have made but for that delusion, the will cannot be sustained. An insane delusion has been defined as a spontaneous conception and acceptance as a fact of that which has no real existence except in imagination. The conception must be persistently adhered to against all evidence and reason.

In conclusion, testators have testamentary capacity if they have the ability to mentally understand in a general way (1) the nature and extent of the property to be disposed of, (2) the testator’s relation to those who would naturally claim a substantial benefit from his will, and (3) a general understanding of the practical effect of the will as executed. Testators can be suffering from some type of mental disability as long as the documents are executed during a lucid interval and they are not suffering from an insane delusion.

2500 North Military Trail, Suite 312
Boca Raton, Florida   33431
Phone: 561-392-1800

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