Legal News: Wills and Trusts (Testamentary capacity)

Excerpts from Mass Lawyers Weekly (Jan 18, 2021) This Week's Decisions:

Where a testator died 6 years after he changed his estate planning documents to leave everything to one of his three sons, the evidence was insufficient to rebut the presumption fo testamentary capacity.

A contrary ruling by a Superior Court judge is reversed.

"After their father, Antoine Y. Haddad, died, the plaintiffs Joseph A. Haddad and Alain A. Haddad, discovered that Antoine had changed his estate planning documents to leave everything to their brother Marcel A. Haddad. This suit followed, in which Joseph and Alain asserted claims against Marcel for fraud, deceit, conversion, unjust enrichment, lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence and sought an accounting, a constructive trust, and injunctive relief. A Superior Court judge, after a bench trial, concluded that Joseph and Alain had failed to establish that the changed estate plan was the product of undue influence by Marcel. The judge concluded, however, that Antoine lacked testamentary capacity when he executed the douments 6 years before his death in 2017 from dementia. 

The practical effect of the judge's ruling was to return the sons to their positions as equal beneficiaries under an earlier estate plan Antonine had established in 2004.  "Although Antoine suffered a long period of cognitive decline dating from at least 2010 and culminating in profound Alzheimer's disease by the time he died in 2017 we conclude that the evidence was insufficient to rebut the presumption of testamentary capacity on July 12, 2011, when he executed the new documents and, thus, the critical date for purposes of assessing his capacity to dispose of his assets. In addition, although Antoine, a nature speaker of Arabic, had limited proficiency in English that may have affected his understanding of the estate documents. It did not affect his testamentary capacity, which is the only issue on appeal.Although such a fact may well, depending on the circumstances, bear on the validity of the execution of testamentary documents, it does not ordinarily bear on testamentary capacity...

"Woven throughout the judge's detailed and thoughtful decision were references to Antoine's facility with the English language. Although a lack of facility in a particular language may well bear on a testamator's understanding of the provisions of estate documents in that language (and thus the validity of their execution), it does not prevent a testator from having the capacity to execute such documents, which is the issue in this appeal...a testator may have the capacity to execute estate documents in a language he neither speaks, reads, nor writes.

"For these reasons, so much of the judgement entered on July 24, 2019, in favor of Joseph and Alain on counts II and V of the amended complaint is reversed."