Testamentary capacity (being of sound mind) is required to make a valid will in New Jersey.
Many people are surprised by how low the standard for testamentary capacity is. The standard for testamentary capacity is lower than the standard to enter into a contract or to marry. See In the Matter Of the Estate Of Blanche T. Riordan.
What Are the Requirements For Testamentary Capacity In New Jersey?
To have testamentary capacity under New Jersey law, a decedent must be able to comprehend:
- The property he is about to dispose of;
- The natural objects of his bounty;
- The meaning of the business in which he is engaged;
- The relation of each of the factors to the others; and,
- The distribution that is made by the will.
Who Has the Burden Of Establishing a Lack Of Testamentary Capacity In a Will Contest?
The burden of establishing a lack of testamentary capacity in a New Jersey will contest is upon the one who challenges its existence, and that burden must be sustained by clear and convincing evidence. In re Estate of Coffin, 103 N.J. Super. 1, 3, (App. Div. 1968).
In order to prevail on a will challenge based upon a testator’s lack of capacity, the will challenger must show that the testator did not comprehend at least one of the required elements for testamentary capacity under New Jersey law.
Testamentary Capacity Is Tested At the Time Of Execution Of the Will
In a New Jersey will contest based on lack of testamentary capacity, the will challenger must establish a lack of testamentary capacity at the time the will was executed. See In the Matter Of the Estate Of Blanche T. Riordan. Just because a testator dies with dementia or some other mental impairment does not mean that the testator lacked testamentary capacity at the time the will was executed. Therefore, evidence must be presented from around the time that the will was executed to show a lack of testamentary capacity.
Testamentary Capacity Is Presumed Under New Jersey Law
In any attack upon the validity of a will, there is a legal presumption that the testator was of sound mind and competent when he executed the will. Haynes v. First Nat’l Bank of N.J., 87 N.J. 163, 175-76 (1981); In re Will of Davis, 14 N.J. 166, 169 (1953).
What Evidence Suggests a Lack Of Testamentary Capacity?
Because the standard for testamentary capacity is so low, a will challenger must have strong evidence that the testator did not have the requisite capacity to make a valid will under New Jersey law. A testator’s misconception of the exact nature or value of his assets will not invalidate a will where there is no evidence of incapacity. Even an actual mistake by a testator as to the extent of his property does not show as a matter of law that he was wanting in testamentary capacity.
The best evidence of a lack of testamentary capacity comes from disinterested witnesses who were around the testator at the time the will was executed. This can include friends, neighbors, caregivers, and family members. Testimony from the testator’s doctors is also helpful to establish whether the testator possessed testamentary capacity. These are the people that actually treated the testator and would be familiar with their medical and mental issues.
Litigants will also often hire experts to review the medical records of a testator and give an opinion as to the testator’s testamentary capacity. See Do I Need An Expert In Inheritance Litigation? An Interview With a Clinical Neuropsychologist.
Testamentary capacity is a very low bar in New Jersey and around the nation. Just because a testator is old or feeble does not mean that testamentary capacity does not exist. Before initiating a will contest based on an alleged lack of testamentary capacity, make sure you consider the actual state of the testator at the time the will was executed, and work with your New Jersey probate lawyer to determine whether challenging the will on this ground makes sense for your particular case.