One of the things estate planning attorneys have to deal with in their line of work (most often with elderly clients) is the question of whether or not a client is competent to sign their legal documents. Every principal (or person executing the documents) must be competent, and most attorneys—most people—can make this assessment based on observation, experience and instinct during the course of interaction; but every once in a while a situation arises that is not so clear, or a family member will express concern about the principal’s ability to understand and sign legal documents.
How can you tell if a person is competent? In her book Senior Moments author Jacqueline D. Byrd quotes law professor Peter Margulies’ six factors to determine capacity:
- Ability to articulate reasoning behind a decision
- Variability of the client’s state of mind
- Appreciation of the consequences of a decision
- Irreversibility of a decision
- Substantive fairness of a transaction
- Consistency with lifetime commitments
Byrd goes on to say that for the purposes of determining whether or not a person is competent to sign a will or trust, however, the requirements may be slightly different; more focused on whether or not the principal has a clear knowledge of his or her assets, has a full knowledge of the persons to whom the estate is being left, and is able to reasonably formulate and express a plan for the disposition of the estate.
The unfortunate truth about elderly illness is that competency in a person afflicted with the beginnings of Alzheimer’s or Dementia can often change from day to day or even hour to hour. If there will be any question at all about the competency of the principal the safest thing to do is to have mental examination performed by a doctor, and even perhaps include a video of the will signing. While the video is NOT a legal substitute for the Will or Trust, it can show mental competence at the time of signing if it is properly handled. Of course the very best way to ensure mental competence is to create your estate plan early, before age or dementia becomes a factor.