How Is Testamentary Capacity Determined In Pennsylvania?

A testator must have testamentary capacity in order to make a valid will under Pennsylvania law. Testamentary capacity is what Pennsylvania statute § 2501 means when it requires a testator to be of “sound mind” to make a will.  20 Pa. C.S.A. § 2501.

To have testamentary capacity under Pennsylvania law, the testator must have an intelligent knowledge, even though his memory may be impaired by age or disease, regarding:

  1. The natural objects of his or her bounty;
  2. The general composition of his estate; and,
  3. What he or she desires to do with his or her estate.

 

The standard has been set forth in many Pennsylvania cases, including Brantlinger Will, Hunter Will, and Sommerville Will.

Knowledge Regarding the Natural Objects Of His Bounty

The testamentary capacity requirement that a testator have knowledge regarding the natural objects of his or her bounty simply means that the testator must know his relatives that would inherit the estate if there was no will.

This does not require that the testator know the intestate hierarchy under Pennsylvania law to have testamentary capacity.  It simply means that the testator must know his closest relatives, as those are the ones that would inherit as heirs under intestacy.

Knowledge Regarding the General Composition Of His Estate

The testamentary capacity requirement that the testator know the general composition of his estate means that the testator must understand, in a general way, the property that he owns.  The testator does not need to know every asset that is in the testator’s possession.

Knowledge Of What He Desires To Do With His Estate

Pennsylvania law also requires that a testator know what he desires to do with his estate in order to have testamentary capacity to make a will.  This factor goes to the very essence of making a will, because it requires the testator to know what he or she wants to do by signing the will.

Testamentary Capacity Is the Lowest Capacity Standard Under Pennsylvania Law

The testamentary capacity standard under Pennsylvania law, like many states, is quite low.  The standard of capacity required to make a valid will is lower than the capacity required to enter into a contract or to conduct business.  A testator, even though old, sick, and forgetful, will still have the legal testamentary capacity to make a will under Pennsylvania law, as long as the three requirements of testamentary capacity are met.

Weakened intellect and its effect on capacity to make a will is a different question than testamentary capacity, which we have written about here.

How Do You Prove Lack Of Testamentary Capacity Under Pennsylvania Law?

Evidence of the lack of testamentary capacity can come in many forms.  Typically, those involved in a will contest use medical records, testimony of friends, family, and other witnesses, and even expert witnesses to show that a testator lacked the requisite testamentary capacity under Pennsylvania law.

Courts evaluate testamentary capacity on the date of the execution of the contested will.  Evidence  of  such  state  of  mind  may  be  received  for  a  reasonable  time before and after execution as reflective of decedent’s testamentary capacity.

The Pennsylvania will contest case of Estate of Nalaschi involved litigation over the testamentary capacity of the testator.  The court reviewed the evidence and determined that ample evidence existed that the testator was competent when the contested will was executed, and that the will contestants offered evidence that was more remote in time to support their capacity challenge:

The  record,  when  viewed  in  the  light  most  favorable to  Witaconis, supports  the  trial  court’s  conclusion  that  Decedent  had  testamentary capacity.  Although Eugene cites several questionable actions by Decedent in 2010, he provides little evidence of Decedent’s incompetence from the time reasonably close to the execution of the 2011 Will.  See Appellant’s Brief at 12  -23.  Moreover, Eugene fails to explain how his evidence of Decedent’s mental  deficiencies  demonstrates  that  Decedent  was  not “aware  of  the natural  objects  of  his  bounty,  the  composition  of  his  estate  and  what  he wants done with it.”  See In re Bosley, 26 A.3d at 1111-12.

Furthermore, as this Court has previously stated, impressions  of  the  Decedent  on  the  very  date  he executed   his   will   are   more   probative   of   the Decedent’s  testamentary  capacity  than  those  of someone  .  .  .  who  never  met  the  decedent  and formulated  an  opinion  of  Decedent’s  mental  state based solely on medical records. Id. at 1112.

In this case, most of the evidence that Eugene cites in support of his argument that Decedent lacked testamentary capacity to execute the 2011 Will is from 2010.  Appellant’s Brief at 12-23.    This  evidence  is  not from a reasonable time before or after the execution of the 2011 Will, but in some instances over a year before Decedent executed the 2011 Will on April 25,  2011.   See  In  re  Agostini’s  Estate,  457  A.2d  at  867.    Additionally, Eugene  relies  heavily  on  the  testimony  of  Dr.  Turchetti,  even  though  Dr. Turchetti  never  actually  met  with  Decedent,  but  rather  only  reviewed  his records.  See N.T., 4/8/13, at 7-8; In re Bosley, 26 A.3d at 1112.

To prove that a testator lacked the requisite testamentary capacity to make a will, the will contestant must be able to prove that the testator lacked capacity at the time the will was executed, and offer evidence refuting each of the factors required for testamentary capacity under Pennsylvania law.

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