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Can a person with Dementia Sign Legal Documents?

by LAURIE MENZIES, ESQ
Thu, Mar 14th 2013 01:15 pm

The short answer is "Yes." A person with a diagnosis of dementia may, in fact, be able to sign legal documents.  Legally, a person's capacity is tested differently depending on what documents the person is signing.

Generally speaking, competence or capacity is usually analyzed by the situation. That is, the question will be answered differently depending on the nature of the document and the circumstances of the signing. As a general rule the signer has to have sufficient understanding to know what the document is, and the effect that their signing it will have.

The most highly-developed law of capacity, unsurprisingly, centers on the level of understanding required to sign a will.  That standard is referred to as "testamentary capacity." Basically, testamentary capacity refers to:

- The ability to know the nature and extent of one's property

- The ability to know the natural objects of one's bounty

- The ability to understand the nature of the testamentary

As you can see, the standard of testamentary capacity is quite low. Even people suffering from delusions or hallucinations have been found to have testamentary capacity.

The case of In Re Stewart's Will, 13 N.Y.S. 219 (1891) the decedent left everything that he had to his loving wife of fifty (50) years.  After his passing, the decedent's widow sought to probate her husband's Last Will and Testament, however, the decedent's daughter filed objections, stating that the decedent lacked "testamentary capacity" prior to signing his will. Although all of the witnesses stated that the decedent's memory was failing, none of them disclosed a state of facts that the testator's mind or memory was so far deteriorated that he was unable to comprehend the condition of his property or to understand who the proper objects of his bounty happened to be. Furthermore, although the decedent did exhibit a less-than-stellar memory, the Court deemed that he possessed sufficient strength of mind and memory to make a valid testamentary disposition of his property. In short, memory problems aside, he fulfilled all of the requirements for testamentary capacity.

In an even more interesting instance, the Court in Matter of Proving the Last Will and Testament of Anna Maria Browning, 142 N.Y.S. 683 (1913), was forced to rule on the legitimacy of a Last Will and Testament that was executed by a decedent who was 34 years old yet had exhibited eccentricities since the age of 18. The day after the execution of the Last Will and Testament, the testator was admitted to a private psychological institution and, a few months later, was legally adjudged to be insane and committed to a state mental hospital.  Upon her admission to said institution, the doctors involved believed that the testator suffered from paranoia and dementia. Quite surprisingly, the Court ruled that the evidence of the testator's eccentric conduct failed to show that, at the time of the execution, that the testator had insufficient mental capacity to remember her siblings and relatives who would be considered the objects of her bounty, comprehend her property and make an intelligent and deliberate disposition of that property.  Rather, the proof offered at the will contest hearing showed that the testator was of sound and disposing mind at the time the will was executed.

What do these cases tell us about those that may be suffering from dementia or other mental incapacities? Can these people properly execute a Last Will and Testament? Yes, as long as the testator can recognize and identify the nature and extent of their family members, property/assets and understand the nature of the fact that they are about to execute their Last Will and Testament. Certainly, mental incapacities such as dementia and early onset Alzheimer's may display the beginnings of the loss of these abilities, however, the aforementioned New York Court decisions display how easy it actually is in order to satisfy the "testamentary capacity" requirement.

 

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