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Why Establishing Testamentry Capacity is not a Tick Box Exercise

BY: Paul / 0 COMMENTS / CATEGORIES: Power of Attorney

Why Establishing Testamentary Capacity Is Not a Tick-Box Exercise

One of the many challenges for legal practitioners specialising in Will drafting is establishing the testamentary capacity of the Testator. While in some cases, the presence or absence of sufficient mental capacity may be clear, in others, there may be some uncertainty, necessitating a more comprehensive process to reach a consensus. In the case of James v James [2018] EWHC 43 (Ch); [2018] C.O.P.L.R. 147; [2018] 1 WLUK 252 (Ch D (Bristol)) the High Court was asked to make a ruling on a challenge to a Will based on lack of testamentary capacity, and also outline the factors law practitioners should consider when making a capacity assessment at the time of Will drafting.
James v James (2018)
James v James involved the Will of a man who died in August 2012 at the age of 81. The Testator had been a successful businessman with a farming and haulage operation in Dorset. He had been reluctant to make commitments to his family regarding his inheritance until later in his life after his cognitive wellbeing had been in decline for some time.
The Claimant, S, was one of the Testators three children. In 2007, some of the plots of land owned by the Testator were transferred to one of his daughters, and after the family farming partnership was dissolved, the claimant received a farm, £200,000, the haulage business, vehicles, and a license to use one of the plots, ‘Pennymore’ from which to operate the haulage business. S, however, had been led to believe he would inherit ‘Pennymore’, leading him to challenge the Will on the grounds of his father’s lack of testamentary capacity.
It was stated that the Testator had not been “as formidable as he had once been” from approximately 2004 and had been diagnosed with “moderate dementia with frontal lobe impairment” in 2011. The Will had been signed in September 2010, hence close to the time at which the Claimant had been assessed as unable to make decisions “about his health care, where he lives or his finances”. The High Court held that the common law test for assessing retrospective capacity should be the one set out in Banks v Goodfellow (1870) (Banks), rather than the statutory test set out in the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Applying Banks, the Testator, should have understood:
the nature of entering into the will and its effect;
the extent of the property of which he was disposing; and
claims to which he ought to give effect
In addition, Banks requires the Testator have “no disorder of the mind that perverts his sense of right or prevents the exercise of his natural faculties in disposing of his property by Will”.
The Court held the Testator did have the capacity to enter into the Will.
This case is significant as it underpins the continued importance of Banks as the sole test for judging Will-making capacity in retrospect, and despite being a case from 1870, has not been superseded by the more recent Mental Capacity Act 2005, which contains a new legal provision for the assessment of mental capacity.
Assessing testamentary capacity at the time of Will writing
The importance of verifying the mental capacity of a Testator should never be underestimated. Ultimately, by undertaking this process in a clear and concise manner, contentious probate can be avoided, saving cost, time, and familial discord on behalf of clients and their beneficiaries in the future.
As we established above, the Banks test requires the Testator to understand the Will itself, the extent of their assets and the claims upon them. In addition, a law practitioner can further assess testamentary capacity in several ways:
If the Testator is elderly or infirm at the time of Will writing, the following steps should be considered:
Obtain contemporaneous medical opinion confirming testamentary capacity
Asking a medical practitioner to witness the Will
In the absence of medical opinion, explain to the Testator that this may heighten the possibility of their Will being challenged successfully on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity. Ensure they confirm they wish to proceed and make clear notes of the guidance provided and the decisions made by the Testator and attach these records to the file.
If a medical opinion is needed, it is important to request the assistance of a health practitioner with the skills to assess capacity, to avoid the risk of their competence to make this assessment being questioned in a later claim. The client’s GP may therefore not be the best person to make the assessment. It is also essential that the time between the medical opinion being received and the Will being signed be minimised, to avoid any suggestion that mental capacity declined in the intervening period. When instructing the medical expert, subject to your client’s consent, it is also recommended to provide a summary of their proposed testamentary wishes.
If there is uncertainty regarding the mental capacity of your client (i.e. you have doubts but cannot be sure), it may not be in the best interests of the client to draft the Will. Should your client still wish to proceed in light of the risks that the Will may be later deemed invalid, you should record all of the grounds for doubting capacity, that this has been explained to your client, and the reasons they still wish to proceed.
In summary
Given the rise in Will disputes, it is even more essential that law practitioners specialising in Will drafting make no assumptions regarding the cognitive capacity of clients. Proving testamentary capacity is more than a tick-box exercise; rather it is one that requires that Solicitors and Will writers take the time to get to know their clients and to notice the subtle signs that their capacity may be diminished. By being open and transparent about the importance of this aspect of ensuring Will validity, you can ask questions and seek further information to help you make a determination. And don’t assume only those in their later years may lack testamentary capacity. A client who has suffered a head injury, perhaps as a result of a road traffic accident, or fall, may appear young, physically well, and alert, but maybe suffering impaired cognition (e.g. memory or logical reasoning). By broadening our view of what impaired mental capacity looks like, we can ensure the validity of the Wills we draft is not questioned at a later date.

by TWP Main AdminSep 12, 2019

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Testamentary Capacity and Banks v Goodfellow 1870

BY: Paul / 0 COMMENTS / CATEGORIES: Power of Attorney

 

In 1870, a three-part test for Testamentary Capacity was laid down in what is now referred to as
Banks v Goodfellow (1870). 

It sets out that a Testator has capacity if:

  1. They understand the nature of making a Will and its effects;
  2. They understand the extent of the property of which they are disposing; and
  3. They are able to comprehend and appreciate the claims to which they ought to give effect and are not affected by any disorder of the mind that influences their will in disposing of their property.

Solicitors and Will writers therefore are duty-bound to ask certain pertinent questions of their clients when preparing Wills, so that they can satisfy themselves that the test has been met.

If in any way the test has not been met, then after the Testators death, the Will could easily be challenged under the claim that full Testamentary Capacity was not established.

In order to satisfy these conditions, our Advisor will need to establish the following:

  1. Your name and full personal details including date of birth, etc.
  2. The makeup of your immediate family – even if certain members are going to be excluded from the Will.
  3. A broad understanding of your estate notated in the form of a Statement of Assets
  4. What gifts are being given, to whom and under what circumstances.
  5. Questions regarding your current state of health and any medication that you may be taking, if relevant to establishing coherence of thought.

Once Testamentary Capacity has been established, this may be clearly noted as such, at the very beginning of your Will.

Because we keep very accurate attendance notes and records of all of our conversations with you, we are 100% confident that once a Will produced by ourselves is signed and witnessed, it is from then on completely robust and steadfast against any potential claim of insufficient mental capacity, assuming all the information required to establish said capacity has been forthcoming.

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