Proving Incapacity: How Can You Determine Whether Dementia Played a Role in the Will Change? Tested Methods for a Challenging Evidentiary Task
In an earlier blog, I reminded readers that Florida is home to the nation’s largest geriatric population, many of whom are vulnerable to exploitation due to the infirmities of age and diminished mental capacity. A recent study discovered that the prevalence of dementia is estimated to double every five years in the elderly, growing from a disorder that affects 1 percent of persons 60 years old to a condition afflicting approximately 30 percent to 45 percent of persons 85 years old.
It Just Doesn’t Make Any Sense
Many times I am asked to represent persons who don’t live in Florida and don’t see their elderly Florida relatives on a daily basis. During their visits to Florida they notice a change in their elderly relative’s behavior, but don’t take any drastic measures because they don’t fear that their relative is in danger and because they are only visiting and don’t want to upset their elderly relative. After death, these persons then discover that their relative wrote a new will at the eleventh hour of their life with provisions that don’t make any sense. To the now disinherited family member who is looking for answers, I often ask whether their elderly relative could have been suffering from diminished capacity to an extent that the should be invalidated.
The Doctor Is In
It is at this point that the inquiry delves into a myriad of factors. One of the first things I look at is the medication that the elderly person was taking. Many doctors believe that some of the many forms of dementia are treatable and reversible and will make efforts to treat the diseases through various prescription drugs, for example, Aricept. Also, elderly persons frequently experience battles with debilitating depression which physicians will attempt to combat with prescription drugs. Often, there will be a change in dose or other medical evidence indicating whether or not the elderly person responded favorably to the medication or whether their condition continued to deteriorate.
In Florida, testamentary capacity is the ability of a person to make a valid will. It requires that the person making the will understand the nature and extent of the property they own at the time the will is executed; the nature and effect of signing the will and an understanding of the planned disposition in the will. Finally, and most importantly, the person making the will must have knowledge of their natural relatives and the nature of their relationship with the person making the will.
Florida is unique in that its state decisional case law recognizes that a person might not lack capacity all the time for all purposes. What has developed in Florida is a principle of law called “partial insanity.” Under this principle, partial insanity may invalidate a will. See, In re Supplee’s Estate, 247 So. 2d 488 (Fla. 2d DCA).
I have had success where family members kept notes that were contemporaneous with their observations of their elderly relative, or where there is some evidence other than their own testimony pointing to the conclusion that their relative was suffering from progressive forms of dementia that affected their judgment at the time they executed the will. This evidence can take many forms, for example, I had one case where the evidence included my client’s father who went out driving a golf cart in his underwear. This one episode, coupled with other evidence that he had forgotten that one of his pieces of real estate had already been sold years ago, led to the conclusion that he did not understand the nature of his property at the time he executed the will.