Proper execution of a legal instrument requires that the person signing have sufficient mental “capacity” to understand the implications of the document. While most people speak of legal “capacity” or “competence” as a rigid black line–either the person has it or doesn’t–in fact it can be quite variable depending on the person’s abilities and the function for which capacity is required.
One side of the capacity equation involves the client’s abilities, which may change from day to day (or even during the day), depending on the course of the illness, fatigue and the effects of medication. On the other side, greater understanding is required for some legal activities than for others. For instance, the capacity required for entering into a contract is higher than that required to execute a will.
The standard definition of capacity for wills has been aptly summed up by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court:
Testamentary capacity requires ability on the part of the testator to understand and carry in mind, in a general way, the nature and situation of his property and his relations to those persons who would naturally have some claim to his remembrance. It requires freedom from delusion which is the effect of disease or weakness and which might influence the disposition of his property. And it requires ability at the time of execution of the alleged will to comprehend the nature of the act of making a will.
This is a relatively “low threshold,” meaning that signing a will does not require a great deal of capacity. The fact that the next day the testator does not remember the will signing and is not sufficiently “with it” to execute a will then does not invalidate the will if he understood it when he signed it.
The standard of capacity with respect to durable powers of attorney varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some courts and practitioners argue that this threshold can be quite low: the client need only know that he trusts the attorney-in-fact to manage his financial affairs. Others argue that since the attorney-in-fact generally has the right to enter into contracts on behalf of the principal, the principal should have capacity to enter into contracts as well. The threshold for entering into contracts is fairly high.
The standards for entering into a contract are different because the individual must know not only the nature of her property and the person with whom she is dealing, but also the broader context of the market in which she is agreeing to buy or sell services or property. In Farnum v. Silvano in 1989, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed the sale of a home for half of the home’s market value by a 90-year-old woman suffering from organic brain disease. The court contrasted competency to sell property with the capacity to make a will, the latter requiring only understanding at the time of executing the will:
Competency to enter into a contract presupposes something more than a transient surge of lucidity. It requires not only the ability to comprehend the nature and quality of the transaction and an understanding of what is “going on,” but also an ability to comprehend the nature and quality of the transaction, together with an understanding of its significance and consequences.
As a practical matter, in assessing a client’s capacity to execute a legal document, attorneys generally ask the question, “Is anyone going to challenge this transaction?” If a client of questionable capacity executes a will giving her estate to her husband, and then to her children if her husband does not survive her, it’s unlikely to be challenged. If, on the other hand, she executes a will giving her estate entirely to one daughter with nothing passing to her other children, the attorney must be more certain of being able to prove the client’s capacity.
While the standards may seem clear, applying them to particular clients may be difficult. The fact that a client does not know the year or the name of the President may mean she does not have capacity to enter into a contract, but not necessarily that she can’t execute a will or durable power of attorney. The determination mixes medical, psychological and legal judgments. It must be made by the attorney (or a judge, in the case of guardianship and conservatorship determinations) based on information gleaned by the attorney in interactions with the client, from other sources such as family members and social workers, and, if necessary, from medical personnel. Doctors and psychiatrists cannot themselves make a determination as to whether an individual has capacity to undertake a legal commitment. But they can provide a professional evaluation of the person that will help an attorney make this decision.
Because you need a third party to assess capacity and because you need to be certain that the formal legal requirements are followed, it can be risky to prepare and execute legal documents on your own without representation by an attorney.