Palm Springs Law Blog

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Understanding Competency in California Estate Planning

When someone writes their will, it is assumed that the document they create is representative of their final wishes. However, there are ways to challenge its accuracy.

The person who creates a document must be mentally and legally capable of making decisions for themselves and must not be under coercion to draft their will in a manner that benefits one party over another. 

Therefore, if a potential inheritor feels as though the will’s creator wasn’t in sound mind (or within their legal rights) when they made the will, they can challenge the document on the grounds of incompetence.

Challenging for Competency

In California, estate planning must be performed by someone who is mentally capable. Challenging that capability can occur in several ways:

Permanent Mental Incompetence

A challenge for permanent mental incompetence most commonly goes against estates that were created by someone who is well-on in age. Many older individuals experience some form of dementia later in life, making it easier for others to challenge their mental competence.

In response, courts often rule that someone who is suffering from a significant loss of their mental facilities due to age or dementia is not capable of creating or modifying a will. And that makes for a reason why it is typically best to create a will long before you think you will need one. Creating a will at a younger age and only making slight modifications over the years means you can usually avoid these types of challenges.

If you find yourself needing to challenge an estate or overturn a will for this reason, you will usually need significant medical evidence of incompetence to convince a judge to do so.

Temporary Mental Incompetence

Challenges for temporary mental incompetence are often the result of injuries or substance abuse. For example, if someone has a drinking problem and creates or changes their will while dealing with it, whatever they write would likely be considered invalid by a court of law. However, a will written immediately after successfully getting out of rehab would probably be regarded as valid.

Similarly, if someone has recently suffered an injury or a significant emotional event (like the loss of a loved one), any changes made to a will would probably be ruled invalid. People who are suffering significant mental turmoil are likely to make decisions they wouldn’t make under other circumstances.

Defending Your Competence

If you are writing or changing a will, it will be of great benefit to your heirs if you can defend your competence from challenges when you make such changes. While every will includes a statement that the creator is of sound mind, you can do more to prove your competence than that. For example, you can get a psychiatric evaluation just before writing the will and include it alongside the document.

Furthermore, if you are worried that you will become mentally incompetent later in life, you can assign durable power of attorney to a trusted party. Doing so will prevent anyone from taking advantage of you and getting you to make changes you otherwise wouldn’t want. An experienced estate planning lawyer can help you determine when or if you should grant another power of attorney.

Contact a California Estate Planning Attorney to Learn More About Competence

If you have questions about competence, either as the creator of a will or a potential heir, contact the law firm of Heritage Legal, PC, in Palm Springs, CA, today to discuss the topic with an experienced and caring California estate planning attorney.

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