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Court Strikes Down Will for Lack of Capacity


On December 20, 1952, the decedent died a childless widow. She left a supposed last will and testament that is dated April 29, 1929. This she tried to dispose of her estate and exercise a power of appointment granted to her by the will of her father. Another document dated September 13, 1929 was added that only confirmed and confirmed the April 29th will. According to a New York Probate Lawyer, after a trial by jury both wills were denied probate. The reason given was that the testator lacked the capacity or competency to execute a will. She was not of sound mind. The Appellate Court also affirmed this decision.

The question now is if there was an error in the surrogate court to admit into evidence the statements of two witnesses, now deceased, in a prior lunacy proceeding. The Surrogate court relied on the Civil Practice Act that the statement of a deceased witness in a former trial or hearing may be used as evidence in a following hearing of the same subject-matter. The hearing for lunacy was presumptive. There was no other evidence so it was admissible but not conclusive.

This is the history obtained by a Manhattan Probate Lawyer. Her husband died in 1927, when she was 53 years old. Before long, she was showing erratic and distraught behavior. She was presenting abnormal habits and conduct, which included alcohol abuse. Her condition became so bad that between 1927 and 1929 she had been a voluntary patient at a local hospital several times. The hospital is a licensed mental sanitarium in New York. Her condition still progressed and she was no longer able to take care of herself or her affairs. In September 24, 1929 she was admitted to a second hospital as a voluntary patient because of this. She stayed there until she died 23 years later.

The testator’s brother started the lunacy proceedings in November, 1929. The petition was not opposed at the hearing. In the hearing, the head of the hospital and previously consulting physician at Manhattan State Hospital testified as to the mental state of the decedent, which went undisputed.

The lunacy proceedings and the testamentary capacity hearing may not be different in the fundamentally in substance, but their purpose differs. The incompetency in one instance like in managing one’s affairs does not necessary mean incompetency in making a valid last will and testament. The statute that asks for the subject-matter to be the same has not been satisfied. There was also no mention of Mrs. White’s condition before the proceedings for the determination of her lunacy. The court determined that being unable to facilitate ordinary affairs does not mean lack of testamentary capacity. There are the ones who are deemed wholly incapacitated, and they are also seen as lacking capacity to make a valid will. Even with this, there may be an exception as there is what is called a lucid interval. People who are also seen as mentally incapacitated may be unable to protect themselves because of their mental capacity, and that is it. In the same hearing, the testator nor her guardian were not able to present and question as to what will happen if there is a will contest.

The court has determined that the beneficiaries of the will should have a day in court. It should not be concluded by testimonies from a previous hearing that were uncontested. Another investigation to the testatrix capacity should be done as is governed by a different law with a different proceeding. The order was therefore reversed, and a new trial granted.

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