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Yes, I am of sound mind, and I come in peace from Alpha Centauri

3/27/2015 | Kaplin Stewart Blog

We have been talking about capacity and estate planning. Pennsylvania law states that a will is valid only if it is executed by a person who is 18 years old and of sound mind. The question we have been trying to answer — and that experts actually admit is unanswerable — is what does a sound mind, aka capacity, look like?

In 1975, the movie “Grey Gardens” chronicled the day-to-day life of Edith “Big Edie” and daughter “Little Edie” Beale, of East Hampton. They lived in what was universally described as “a crumbling mansion” and in close company with a number of cats and raccoons. The Health Department found that their home, littered with organic and inorganic waste, violated every building regulation in the book. Watching the film or reading about the women leaves one with the definite impression the two Edies were eccentric. Can someone be eccentric and of sound mind?

In Pennsylvania, the answer is a typical legal answer: maybe. State case law says that eccentric, even inappropriate behavior may be used as evidence to prove a lack of capacity, but there must be more.

On the other hand, the courts treat unorthodox religious beliefs a little differently. In a 1903 case, the testator was determined to be of sound mind even though he believed he could communicate with the dead through a medium. The tipping point was not the need for an intermediary (the medium), but, rather, the fact that nothing in the will indicated that the testator’s bequests were influenced by the spirits he communicated with.

Case law has also established the rule that a judge may declare someone incapacitated — and have the person confined to a treatment facility — but the finding does not necessarily carry over to testamentary capacity. Your sister may leave one courtroom legally incapacitated, execute a will, visit a second court that, in turn, verifies her testamentary capacity, and go straight to the mental health facility.

In our last post, we asked how you go about challenging capacity. The answer is this: on a case-by-case basis. Every situation comes with its own unique set of circumstances, of internal and external forces and expert opinions, emotional baggage, cats and raccoons. The rules above are supported by case law, but the next will contest could change the rule.

It’s one of the reasons this area of law is so interesting.

Source: 31 Standard Pennsylvania Practice 2d ยง 148:56 et seq. via WestlawNext