When an elderly parent passes away, adult children sometimes discover that changes were made to the parent’s will without the child’s knowledge. Especially if there were significant changes in beneficiaries and gifts, those changes can raise questions about the parent’s competence when the will was revised. When you find yourself in that situation, how can you determine whether Mom was competent when she changed her will? Michigan law provides the answer by establishing specific tests for ascertaining whether a testator — the legal term for the person who executes a will — has testamentary capacity when a will is signed.
Michigan Requirements for Testamentary Capacity
Michigan’s Estates and Protected Individuals Code (EPIC) requires that a person have “sufficient mental capacity” to make a will. The statute sets out four requirements, all of which must be met to establish that testamentary capacity:
- The testator has the ability to understand that he or she is signing a document that determines how his or her property will be distributed after his or her death.
- The testator has the ability to comprehend the character and amount of his or her property.
- The testator knows the “natural objects of his or her bounty,” which means that he or she understands which family members or individuals normally would inherit the testator’s property.
- The testator has the ability to understand “in a reasonable manner the general nature and effect of his or her act in signing the will.”
In a probate court proceeding claiming lack of testamentary capacity in a specific case, evidence will be introduced relating to the four elements required by the statute. In addition, reviewing those elements with a knowledgeable probate litigation attorney can provide you with insight into whether your parent was competent when the changes to the will were made.
Challenging Testamentary Capacity in Probate Court
Lack of testamentary capacity is one of four reasons for challenging a will in Michigan. A person claiming lack of testamentary capacity has the burden of establishing the incapacity in the probate court proceeding. Since mental capacity of the testator is presumed, meeting that burden can be difficult.
Michigan probate courts are reluctant to invalidate a will on the basis on lack of mental capacity. The requirement for testamentary capacity exists only at the time the will was executed. So, even if a person’s mental capacity varied over time, the probate court can find that the requisite capacity existed when the will was executed. In an often-cited case, one court Michigan court found that a testator who had been diagnosed with dementia was still capable of understanding the nature and effect of the act of signing her will, stating that “weakness of mind and forgetfulness are insufficient to invalidate a will.”
At a hearing where testamentary capacity is being challenged, witnesses can be called to testify about the state of mind of the testator. The evidence likely will include testimony from the witnesses who signed the will. Evidence also can include medical records showing that a testator was diagnosed with dementia or determined to be mentally incompetent. If there was a court proceeding relating to mental capacity, such a guardianship and conservatorship, the record of that proceeding also may be relevant. The facts and conclusions contained in those records will be considered by the court along with all the other evidence and testimony. Most often, no single piece of evidence is conclusive by itself.
There are numerous factors involved in determining whether testamentary capacity was present in a specific case. Circumstances will be different in each case. In reaching a conclusion as to whether the statutory requirements are met, the probate court will take into account all of the evidence presented as it relates to the mental capacity of the testator at the time the will was signed.
Not every case involving a challenge to the validity of a will comes down to testamentary capacity. Often, that claim goes hand-in-hand with other legal challenges, primarily including undue influence.
Talk With Our Michigan Probate Litigation Attorneys
If you have questions about your parent’s mental competence when he or she signed a will — or if another family member is raising these questions — it’s important to discuss the concerns with an knowledgeable Michigan attorney experienced in this area of law. Our BRMM Michigan probate litigation attorneys will help you evaluate the factors that determine whether your parent had the legally required mental capacity at the time he or she signed the will and discuss what options you may have available.
BRMM assists Michigan residents and clients from other states with an interest in a Michigan estate. We also help clients with property or interests in both Michigan and Florida. Call us at (248) 213-9514 or complete our online form to set up a free initial consultation.