Different legal actions require different levels of mental capacity to be valid. For example, the level of mental capacity required to sign a will, referred to as “testamentary capacity,” is lower than the level of capacity required to sign a contract, called “contractual capacity.” The various standards are discussed below.
Capacity to Sign a Will – Testamentary Capacity
To have testamentary capacity, the will signer must satisfy five requirements. First, the signer must understand the business in which they are engaged. Second, the signer must understand the effects of making a will. Third, the signer must understand the general nature and extent of their own property. Fourth, the signer must know to whom their property should pass or is likely to pass. And fifth, the signer must be able to collect all of this information in their mind at once and understand the how it all connects. They also must not suffer from an “insane delusion” that affects the will, nor be under undue influence from an outside party.
A person signing a will may do so during a lucid interval (sometimes also known as a “moment of clarity”), which is a time of mental capacity that is both preceded and followed by periods of mental incapacity. As long as the signing occurs during this lucid interval, the person has capacity to execute the document at issue.
Testamentary capacity must be proven only if the will is challenged by someone during the probate process. The party seeking to uphold the will (the will proponent) is the party who must prove that the testator did, in fact, have capacity at the time of the will signing. To guard against claims to the contrary, the estate planning attorney should be certain that the testator has capacity at signing, and should not allow someone with questionable capacity to execute a will.
Capacity for Other Legal Arrangements
In contrast to testamentary capacity, the standard for legally signing other documents is generally higher.
Contractual capacity is the mental capacity required to validly execute a contract. Contractual capacity requires that the contracting person appreciates the effects of the act of signing the contract, and understands the nature and consequences of signing the contract as well as the business that they are conducting.
Power of Attorney
Although not entirely clear under Texas law, proper execution of a power of attorney probably requires contractual capacity. The reason is that the POA is valid during the signer’s lifetime and can have a profound effect on business and financial transactions.
Donative capacity, or the capacity to make a gift, is an elusive concept in Texas, but other states require something that appears to be higher than contractual capacity. Common requirements are that the donor of the gift must understand the nature and purpose of the gift, the kind and amount of property given, who is a reasonable recipient of the gift, and the effect the gift will have on the donor. Some states go so far as to require that the donor understand that the gift is irrevocable and that it will reduce the donor’s own assets.
Health Care Decisions
The capacity required to make health care decisions is more than mere mental capacity. Patients must give “informed consent” to all health care procedures, which requires that the patient be competent and that the consent be given voluntarily. The consent is informed when the health care provider gives the patient the information the patient needs to make the right choice.
The Effect of a Lack of Capacity
If a person does not meet the requisite mental capacity requirements when he or she enters into a legal arrangement, the arrangement and its supporting documents are generally void and unenforceable. Third parties can challenge these documents if they believed the person lacked capacity when the documents were signed. For a will, that means bringing a contest during the probate process.
- Michael H. Wald, The Ethics of Capacity, 77 Tex. B.J. 975 (2014).
- Rudersdorf v. Bowers, 112 SW2d 784, 789 (Tex. Civ. App.—Galveston, 1938).
- Tieken v. Midwestern State Univ., 912 SW2d 878, 882 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth, 1995).
Catherine Parsley was an intern at Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter, LLP in 2017. Ms. Parsley is a law student at SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas, Texas, where she is a staff editor of the SMU Law Review. Catherine served as a judicial extern for Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht, of the Supreme Court of Texas. She holds a B.S. in communications studies, cum laude, from the University of Texas at Austin.
Christian Kelso is a Senior Associate at Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter, LLP. He practices in the areas of estate planning, wealth preservation and transfer, probate, tax, and transactional corporate law. He earned a J.D. and LL.M. in taxation from SMU Dedman School of Law. Mr. Kelso has written and presented on numerous topics, including a recent webinar sponsored by the State Bar of Texas, entitled “Caregiver Do’s and Don’ts.”