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Testamentary Capacity

Testamentary Capacity is a legal term “used to describe a person’s legal and mental ability to make or alter a valid Will”.  In order to create a valid and binding Will or Codicil, you must have the requisite testamentary capacity. Throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including Essex County, Middlesex County or any of the towns and cities here in MA, there are two initial hurdles one must meet to have the testamentary capacity to make a valid Will: 1. be of sufficient age – which is generally 18; and 2. meet the mental capacity threshold; which means to have the ability to know the nature and extent of property, the natural objects of one’s property, the disposition that the Will is making and the ability to connect all of these elements together to form a coherent plan.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mAnother way to say it is one must have the mental ability to understand the nature and purpose of making a Will, have a general idea of what you own and what assets you have, and know who are members of your immediate family or other natural objects of your bounty.

Testamentary capacity requires that you have the ability to understand and to be mindful of the type of property and assets you own as well as who may inherit your property whether you have a Will or do not have a Will.  You are required to be of sound mind and free from any disease or weakness which could influence the way that you choose to dispose of your property. You are also required to have the ability at the time of the execution of the Will to comprehend the nature of the act of making a Will.  You must understand what you are doing by signing the Will.

The validity and enforceability of a Will was called into question in a recent Massachusetts case where family members argued over the Testamentary Capacity of the testator. In re Charles P. Galatis, 88 Mass.App.Ct. 273 (2015).

In this case Charles P. Galatis, who was seventy-six years old, was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital and subsequently diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  Mr. Galatis suffered a rapid decline in his physical and mental condition.  Mr. Galatis died on February 25, 2000 in the hospital.

Just prior to his demise, on February 9, 2000, Mr. Galatis executed a document purporting to be his Will. The executor named in the Will filed a Petition to Probate the Will with the Middlesex Probate and Family Court.  The executor was joined by the Will’s principal beneficiary, the Town of Skiathos, Greece. Two of Mr. Galatis’ cousins contested the Will in the Probate Court.  After a ten-day trial, the Probate and Family Court judge declined to allow the Will, concluding that Mr. Galatis lacked the requisite testamentary capacity on the date of execution of the Will, February 9, 2000.  The Probate and Family Court decision was appealed and the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the decision concluding that the medical evidence established that the testator lacked mental capacity to understand the required components of his actions and therefore lacked testamentary capacity.

Reported decisions throughout Massachusetts have consistently looked at medical evidence and anecdotal facts to determine whether or not an individual may be in the right state of mind and aware of the consequences of his or her actions, when determining testamentary capacity.  The court will look to medical testimony and evidence from treating doctors or psychologists, family, friends and neighbors may give anecdotal evidence or facts to establish (or refute)  mental capacity or at times the court may rely upon expert witnesses such as psychiatrist’s testimony.

One looking to challenge a Will based on the lack of capacity should be aware that it is a difficult case to prove. Diminished capacity of the testator, alone, is generally not sufficient to defeat the enforceability of a Will. Hard facts to establish the lack of mental capacity will be required; and if the challenger is not successful, the court may impose legal fees for the failed challenge.