Preparing a Will requires careful thought on the part of the person or persons for whom the Will is being prepared but it also demands great care and skill by the lawyer who is preparing the Will.
With people generally now living much longer and being prone to deteriorating mental health careful consideration must be given to whether or not the person for whom the Will is being prepared has the required level of mental capacity to make a legally valid Will (referred to as testamentary capacity). This is not only an increasingly important issue for lawyers, but it is also an equally important issue for accountants, financial planners, family doctors and other advisors.
One must appreciate that the assessment of a person’s testamentary capacity is a legal test rather than a medical test. The opinion of a treating or reviewing medical practitioner is certainly relevant, but it is not determinative of itself. An assessment of a person’s testamentary capacity may include obtaining an appropriate doctor’s opinion, but it very likely will also require evidence from other sources including people who know or have known the person concerned and who can inform the Court (if necessary) about the day to day activities and responses of the person concerned.
Not infrequently, testamentary capacity can be a borderline issue. This may leave the person for whom a Will is being prepared or has been prepared vulnerable to those who may seek to exert influence over the Will maker and what they put into their Will. Where the Court is called upon to determine a person’s testamentary capacity it will try and look at the full picture (sometimes with the benefit of hindsight) which often involves hearing from a wide range of witnesses.
For family members, as well as financial, medical or other advisors, this means making sure that at the time that the Will is executed there are comprehensive written records of the Will maker’s testamentary capacity – the Will maker should be engaged in conversation and if possible detailed written notes kept of responses to questions and the reactions to events that are happening around them at the time. It may also be valuable to take video of the person concerned at or about the time that they execute their Will to support the conclusion that they then have the necessary testamentary capacity.
These simple precautions can assist to prevent a Will later being declared invalid by the Court because the Court is not positively satisfied that the person making the Will had the required level of testamentary capacity.
The consequence of a Will being declared invalid by the Court can be significant and expensive. This may be especially so where there is a sizable Estate at hand and/or where there are potential vulnerable beneficiaries who may miss out on receiving a benefit from the Estate of the deceased. The intended testamentary wishes of the person making the Will may be lost and their Estate distribute in a manner which is far less satisfactory and possibly even contrary to their expressed testamentary wishes.
Therefore, anyone who provides professional advice to others must carefully consider the mental capacity of the person being advised to properly understand the advice provided, appreciate the consequences of following that advice and be capable of providing coherent and reliable instructions to the advisor. In the case of a person who is making a Will, it is the required level of testamentary capacity of that person that is crucial. It is, of course, equally important to ensure that the Will together with all other estate planning documents are regularly reviewed and updated so as to ensure that the person’s Estate will be distributed in accordance with their current testamentary wishes.