Are You of Sound Mind?
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Anyone making a legal document, such as a will, must be of “sound mind” when that document is signed. A person can be eccentric or even forgetful, but as long as they are aware of their actions, know what they own, can identify family and close friends, and understand how their property will be distributed under the will, they are of sound mind for the purposes of a valid will.
The general test for soundness of mind is whether the person making the will understands:
- The meaning and effect of the will;
- What he or she owns; and
- Who the people are to whom he or she is leaving belongings.
If a will creator is not of sound mind at signing, and someone later challenges the validity of the will, the judge could rule that the document is invalid. This kind of ruling is rare, but it does happen.
Proving Sound or Unsound Mind
A person's mental condition at the time of signing is what is legally relevant. If the will creator suffered from any mental disorder, from depression to dementia, or there are doubts about mental capacity, evidence, such as a letter from a physician, should be left with the will to prove mental competence at signing. Otherwise, a will may be open to challenge.
Laws differ from state to state, but generally, if someone contests the will by claiming the deceased was not of sound mind, that person must prove, by a “preponderance of the evidence"—which means one side must be considered more provable than the other—that the deceased lacked mental capacity.
The executor or proponent of the will must then show, “beyond a reasonable doubt” (i.e., convincing to a moral certainty) that the deceased did have the required mental capacity, in order for the will to be held valid. Both sides rely on the testimony of medical doctors and may present the deceased’s medical records, but they may also present other evidence, such as eye witness testimony from those who had contact with the deceased before, during, and/or after the execution of the will.
At Minimum, the "Lucid Moment" Requirement
Some states, such as New Mexico, only require a “lucid moment." If at the moment of signing, the individual met the three requirements listed above, testamentary capacity (or sound mind) is satisfied, even if the person did not recall doing so later.