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Court consided whether a person declared incapacitated under Mental Hygiene Law Article 81 has testamentary capacity. Matter of Curtis 2013 NY Slip Op 51417(U) (2013)


In New York, testamentary capacity refers to an individual’s mental soundness at the time of executing a will. As per New York law, the testator must possess the mental acuity to comprehend the nature and consequences of their actions in creating a will. According to EPTL §3-1.1, the testator is required to understand the extent and nature of their property, recognize the natural objects of their bounty, and appreciate the overall testamentary act. The standard for testamentary capacity is distinct from other legal documents, requiring a lower level of cognitive ability. Challenges to testamentary capacity often involve scrutinizing the testator’s mental state at the exact moment of will execution, and evidence of incapacity before or after that moment is considered only if it impacts the testator’s state at the time of execution.

Matter of Curtis, 2013 NY Slip Op 51417(U) (2013) is a case involving significant wealth, complex family dynamics, and a challenge to testamentary capacity. The late Candace Jocelyn Curtis, the recipient of a substantial ten-million-dollar structured settlement, becomes the central figure in a legal drama that involves her purported last will and testament dated January 1, 2012. This blog post aims to dissect the case, exploring its background, key issues, the court’s holding, and the broader implications it holds for probate law.

Background Facts
Candace Curtis received a substantial settlement resulting from in utero exposure to toxic chemicals. Following a 2005 judgment that declared her incapacitated under Mental Hygiene Law Article 81, guardians were appointed to manage her affairs. Candace passed away, leaving behind a contested will dated January 1, 2012. The instrument appointed Leonora Smart as the executrix, witnessed by attorney Cynthia S. Rosenzweig and Whitney Van Duser. Heather Curtis objected to probate on the basis of lack of testamentary capacity. The objectant raised concerns about Candace’s cognitive limitations, arguing that due to these limitations, Candace could not have comprehended the contents of the will.

Whether the testator lacked of testamentary capacity because she had been declared incapacitated under Mental Hygiene Law Article 81.

On the issue of the lack of testamentary capacity, the court dismissed the objection, finding that Candace possessed the requisite mental capacity to dispose of her estate through the will. The court emphasizes that the evidence presented, including witness testimonies and the attestation clause, supports Candace’s understanding of the will’s contents and her intent.


The court dismissed the objectant’s claim, emphasizing that feebleness of intellect alone is not sufficient to invalidate a will, citing the precedent Delafield v. Parish. The court underscores that a lower degree of capacity is required to execute a will compared to other legal documents. It also critiques the objectant’s reliance on expert opinions and medical records, noting that these records, including a neuropsychological evaluation from 2001, are not sufficiently proximate to the will’s execution date in 2012.

The court highlights the testimonies of witnesses involved in the will’s execution, including Ms. Rosenzweig and Ms. Van Duser. These witnesses, along with the guardian’s affidavit, provide compelling evidence that Candace understood the nature and consequences of executing the will, knew the extent of property disposition, and was cognizant of her relationships with potential beneficiaries. The strained relationship between the objectant and Candace, as indicated by the guardian, is cited as further evidence of Candace’s testamentary capacity.

The court found that, based on the totality of evidence and legal considerations, Candace Curtis possessed the requisite testamentary capacity on January 1, 2012, to effectively dispose of her estate through the contested will.

To demonstrate a lack of testamentary capacity, one must provide evidence that the testator did not possess the necessary mental soundness at the time of executing the will. This can be a challenging legal burden to meet, and the specific requirements may vary based on jurisdiction. However, in New York, and generally, some common approaches to establishing a lack of testamentary capacity include:

  1. Medical Records and Expert Testimony: Introduce medical records, psychiatric evaluations, or neuropsychological assessments conducted around the time of the will’s execution. Expert testimony from healthcare professionals can be influential in illustrating the testator’s mental state.
  2. Witness Testimony: Depose witnesses who were present during the will’s execution. Witnesses, such as the attorney overseeing the process or individuals present at the time, can testify about the testator’s behavior, demeanor, and apparent comprehension.
  3. Prior Incapacity Findings: If there are court records or legal findings declaring the testator incapacitated in other proceedings, such as those under Mental Hygiene Law Article 81, present these as evidence supporting the lack of testamentary capacity. However, as shown in Matter of Curtis, this type of evidence is not always conclusive.
  4. Circumstantial Evidence: Build a case based on circumstantial evidence, such as inconsistent or irrational provisions within the will, unusual bequests, or changes that appear contrary to the testator’s known relationships or intentions.
  5. Witness Affidavits: Obtain affidavits from witnesses who interacted with the testator around the time of the will’s execution. These affidavits can detail observations of the testator’s mental state, demeanor, and understanding.

It’s essential to consult with a legal professional experienced in probate and estate law to ensure compliance with jurisdiction-specific rules and to effectively present evidence in court. Successfully challenging testamentary capacity often requires a thorough understanding of legal standards and the ability to present compelling evidence.

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