Wiener and Wiener LLP
With Offices In Allentown And West Palm Beach, We Serve Throughout Eastern Pennsylvania And Florida

How is testamentary capacity determined when someone makes a will?

On Behalf of | Apr 7, 2023 | Estate Planning |

A will is one of the most important legal documents you can ever draft and sign. For your will to serve its intended purpose, however, it must be duly signed per Pennsylvania’s laws. This means that, among other things, you must be of sound mind. This is known as testamentary capacity. 

You must understand how to prove testamentary capacity should you suspect that someone might bring it up as the basis for disputing your will. Otherwise, you risk having your will invalidated – and your assets distributed against your wishes. 

What is testamentary capacity and how is it established?

Basically, testamentary capacity is a legal term that refers to an individual’s mental ability to sign any legal document. In the context of will creation, it is the threshold test that you must meet to be deemed fit to make a valid will. 

Pennsylvania laws presume that most persons over the age of 18 have the mental competence to enter into a legal contract like signing a will. However, if you display a mental disability that affects your ability to make sound decisions such as an intellectual disability or a degenerative condition like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, then your capacity to sign a will can be questioned. 

Affirming your testamentary capacity

Generally speaking, when you get legal guidance to create your will, your representative will help make sure that your testamentary capacity is intact. That being said, you must meet the following requirements to affirm that you have the mental ability to sign a will:

  • You must understand the nature and effects of your will – in simple English, you must understand that the document you are about to sign will define how your estate will be distributed upon your death.
  • You must understand the scope of the assets you are including in your will for distribution when you die.
  • You must know whom you are bequeathing your assets and the reasons for distributing your assets in a particular manner.

Mental capacity is based on the testator’s (the person signing the Will) mental state at the moment they are signing the Will.

A separate but related issue is whether a person who meets the testamentary capacity standards may have executed the Will under any “undue influence”. Unlike testamentary capacity, the test for undue influence can examine outside factors and the relationship between the person receiving the benefit under the Will and the testator. The rules and provisions related to undue influence are more fact specific and typically require a broader examination of matters regarding the testator.

A will speaks for you when you are no longer around to articulate your wishes. Learning more about estate planning laws can help you make a document that will stand the test of probate.