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What You Need to Know About Mental Capacity Standards in California

08/23/2023 | Blog, Estate Planning

A person’s mental health and intellectual functioning are central to their ability to sign a legal document. When it’s possible a signatory was cognitively impaired at the time he or she created or amended a will or trust, questions can be raised as to the validity of the entire instrument. For this reason, there are different legal criteria that can be used to measure an individual’s fitness to participate in specific acts. Here is what you need to know about some of the mental capacity standards in California:

California has Various Mental Capacity Standards

Determining the standard for mental capacity in California depends on the type of document the person is creating or signing. For example, the legal elements used to determine a person’s capacity to get married are different from those used to assess his or her ability to understand a will. Further, the courts will use different criteria for evaluating someone’s capacity when they are entering into a legally binding contract.

Mental Capacity Under the Probate Code

In California, the Probate Code includes a rebuttable presumption that everyone has the capacity to make their own decisions and be responsible for their actions. In order to establish that an individual lacks the ability to make a choice or engage in a specific activity, such as entering into a contract, consenting to marry, making medical decisions, creating a will, or executing a trust, there must be evidence that at least one of their mental functions is impaired. The Probate Code sets out the ways in which the impairment may present itself in an extensive list that includes symptoms such as not being oriented to time and place, having delusions, and the inability to recognize objects and familiar people. Further, the identified deficit must present a significant barrier to the “the person’s ability to understand and appreciate the consequences of his or her actions with regard to the type of act or decision in question.”

Under Probate Code 812, a person is considered not to have capacity if he or she cannot effectively communicate regarding a decision. Therefore, someone seeking to establish another person lacked capacity at a specific time could provide evidence that the individual could not communicate. Additionally, evidence may be presented that the individual was not able to understand and appreciate, to the extent relevant, all of the following:

  • The rights, duties, and responsibilities created by or affected by the decision.
  • The probable consequences for the decisionmaker and, where appropriate, the persons affected by the decision.
  • The significant risks, benefits, and reasonable alternatives involved in the decision.

California Testamentary Capacity

When someone executes a will, Probate Code section 6100.5 states that he or she is not competent to make a will if when the will was made, the individual did not:

  • Have sufficient mental capacity to understand the nature of the testamentary act, or
  • Understand and recollect the nature and situation of the individual’s property; or
  • Remember and understand the individual’s relations to their living descendants, spouse, and parents, and those whose interests are affected by the will.

A person can also be shown to lack testamentary capacity when there is evidence he or she “suffers from a mental health disorder with symptoms including delusions or hallucinations” that cause them to devise their will in a certain way that is responsive to the illness.  In other words, someone having a mental health diagnosis is not sufficient to establish incapacity. Instead, the individual’s symptoms must have caused him or her to take specific actions with respect to their estate.

Contact an Experienced California Estate Planning Attorney

Proving someone’s incapacity can be complicated, and will require a detailed understanding of multiple statutes and the ability to present evidence of another person’s state of mind. To succeed, you will need the assistance of an experienced California estate planning attorney to help you evaluate your case and gather the right evidence for the court. At the Law Offices of Alice A. Salvo, we have attorneys who have extensive experience assisting clients with testamentary capacity issues and can help. Contact us today to schedule your free consultation.