Defining Testamentary Capacity

Conn Kavanaugh
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In Haddad v. Haddad, the Massachusetts Appeals Court sent a stark reminder to probate litigators about just how difficult it is to prove a claim of lack of testamentary capacity. Such a finding must rely on specific facts relating to the time of execution only, and  not the day before, the day after, or even a few hours before.

In Haddad v. Haddad, Joseph and Alain Haddad sued their brother, Marcel Haddad, after discovering that their father, Antoine Haddad, changed his estate planning documents to leave everything to Marcel, rather than an equal split amongst the brothers as had been the case in prior estate planning documents. Joseph and Alain asserted a number of claims, including undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity. After a bench trial, the Superior Court judge held that Joseph and Alain failed to establish that their father was unduly influenced by Marcel, but held that their father lacked testamentary capacity when he executed the estate planning documents at issue.

Marcel appealed the Superior Court judge’s ruling that Antoine lacked testamentary capacity. Antoine suffered from “a long period of cognitive decline” beginning in 2010 and progressing to “profound Alzheimer’s disease” by 2017 when he passed away.  Joseph and Alain presented evidence that Antoine’s cognitive abilities declined both before and after the execution of the estate planning documents.  The Appeals Court overturned the lower court’s decision, however, because the lower court judge focused on Antoine’s cognitive decline over time instead of at the time Antoine executed his new estate planning documents.  In so ruling, the Appeals Court held that the “critical question” is whether a testator had testamentary capacity at the time of execution.  No other time period is dispositive. Because the Superior Court judge focused on periods of time outside the date of execution, the decision was overturned.

Attorneys and families should take note of this holding and narrow their focus on establishing or determining testamentary capacity to the testator’s state of mind at the time of execution.  The Court also hinted that there may be another avenue to a lack of testamentary capacity claim when the testator’s native language is not English. The decedent in the Haddad case, Antoine, had a limited understanding of the English language, yet his new estate planning documents were not translated to his native language, Arabic. The Court noted that “in order for execution to be valid, the meaning and effect of the documents must be understood by the testator before he executes them.”  This is usually achieved through independent translation, which was not done in this case. The Court commented that raising this issue could have been a successful avenue for Joseph and Alain to challenge their father’s competency, as the estate planning attorney did not speak Arabic and Marcel, who was present at the execution, was not an independent translator. Because Joseph and Alain did not raise this specific issue within their testamentary capacity claim, however, the Court did not fully address it.  Attorneys and litigants alike should take this into account in a case where the estate planning documents in question were not translated into the testator’s native language.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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