Determining Mental Capacity to Make a Will: Can a Person with Dementia Change their Will?

Date: 05 Mar, 2014| Author: Fred Streiman

Mental capacity is a very important topic when the validity of a will is called into question. There is no exact science to determining when a person is capable of making legally binding decisions, especially as it relates to their estate. Due diligence is required to ensure that the testator (person making the will) understands exactly what they are doing. With Canadians living longer than ever, questions relating to mental capacity, specifically for seniors with dementia, are on the rise.

There is a presumption in Canada that a person who has attained the age of majority can make a valid will. This presumption is rebuttable where there is evidence of suspicious circumstances that warranted further investigation. This can be anything that raises a suspicion in the preparation of the will, the capacity of the testator or a suggestion of coercion or fraud. Once this suspicion is raised, the onus shifts to the party seeking to enforce the will to establish that it was validly made. In terms of mental capacity, it is important to keep in mind that capacity is a legal definition and there is no set scientific standard that applies.

The recent BC Supreme Court decision in Moore v Drummond illustrates how the law evaluates a person’s mental capacity to make a will. Ms. Drummond died in 2011 at the age of 98. A year earlier, she made a new will that gave her entire estate to her neighbors of 40 years. Prior to this, she had a will drawn up in 1994 that left her estate to her son. However, her relationship with her son was tense and deteriorated over the years. Upon her death, the son claimed that the new will of 2011 should be excluded. In support of his claim he pointed to a medical opinion that was drawn up a week prior to Ms. Drummond changing her will. The report said she was incapable of making decisions regarding legal or financial affairs. The opinion was drawn up for the Public Guardian and Trustee of BC (PGT) using their standard form. The court also heard evidence that Ms. Drummond was suffering from dementia at the time. This raised suspicion that the will may be invalid on capacity grounds. Despite this evidence, the BC Supreme Court held that the will of 2011 was valid and that Ms. Drummond had the legal capacity to create a will at that time. The PGT report was insufficient evidence because it was drawn up specifically for PGT using a standard form. It was not a comprehensive medical opinion that addressed Ms. Drummond’s ability to create a will. Furthermore, at the time the will was made, her lawyer drafting the will took special steps to ensure that Ms. Drummond had capacity. The lawyer spent additional time with Ms. Drummond where they engaged her in conversation to evaluate her mental abilities. She was also able to fully remember the will and its dispositions more than 5 weeks later. This showed that she had sufficient capacity at the time the will was made and that she truly did intend to exclude her son from her will.

This case clearly shows that mental capacity to create a will does not mean perfect mental capacity. Diminished capacity raises a suspicion that the will is invalid, but the court can resolve this suspicion and declare the will to be valid. This is especially true when a lawyer drafting the will takes steps to ensure that the testator has the required mental ability to make a will. A medical opinion is not determinative in resolving issues involving legal capacity. They are informative and can be used to help make a legal evaluation. An experience lawyer will take specific steps to determine legal capacity and ensure that a will is validly drafted.

The lawyers at Dale Streiman Law LLP have over three decades of experience solving wills and estates issues. If you have a question about a will or the mental capacity to create a will, contact Dale Streiman Law and meet with our legal professionals to discuss your legal issues.