When it comes to estate planning, the best time to act is right away. Acting promptly protects you from the many unexpected things that can crop up in life, whether they involve a loss of mental capacity or even sudden death. However, even if you've waited and your mental abilities are not what they used to be, do not simply assume that you are no longer allowed to create or update an estate plan. It is always best to consult experienced professionals who can explain exactly what the rules and what you are (or are not) allowed to do. You may have more options than you would have thought.
Helen Weste was a divorced woman living in New Jersey. When she reached her mid 60s, she executed a will. That will split Weste's assets between her sister, eight nieces and nephews and two charities. By 2001, Helen's health and mental sharpness started to decline. By April 2002, doctors diagnosed Weste with severe dementia. The family decided to move Weste into an assisted living facility. Earlier that year, Weste, who was 74 by this point, visited an attorney about her estate plan. She signed the new document in March 2002. That will left a small portion of her estate to one of the charities and two of the nieces, but gave her home and 90% of her remaining estate to John Brek, a neighbor who had befriended Weste and performed odd jobs around her house. The new will also named Brek as executor.
After Weste died in March 2010, the family admitted the 1994 will to probate. In 2011, Brek sought to probate the 2002 will. One of the nieces, Joanne Halkovich, challenged Brek's request to probate the newer will. She argued that her aunt lacked the mental capacity required to execute a will when she signed the newer will. Both sides had competing expert opinions regarding Weste's mental functioning. The niece had an expert who testified that Weste did not understand either who the recipients of her new will were or the volume of her assets. She also presented records from her aunt's treatment in April 2002, just a month after she signed the newer will. Those doctors rated Weste on a numerical functioning scale where 21-30 was considered “severe problems,” and they gave Weste a score of 20.
On the other hand, Brek also had an expert, and this psychologist testified that Weste had testamentary capacity. Weste's attorney also testified, stating that he'd been practicing law for more than three decades and had no doubt that Weste had the required mental capacity. The New Jersey courts ultimately sided with Brek. The requirement for testamentary capacity is a low bar. The trial judge pointed out that Weste was still living alone when she made the newer will, and if she had the functioning ability to live alone and care for herself, she had the capacity to make a will. The appeals court upheld that conclusion.
Obviously, the best time to create or update your estate is…. NOW! Chances are very low that your clarity of mind will be higher in the future than it is today, but there is a very real chance that your mental functioning could decline in the future. Furthermore, none of us are promised tomorrow, meaning that you should get your current estate planning goals placed into valid written legal documents right away, so that you are prepared for whatever the future might bring.
However, if you've procrastinated, don't turn that error into a double mistake by thinking that the degree to which you've declined during that time of procrastination means that the door has been totally shut on your creating or updating your plan. Perhaps the biggest lesson to be taken from the case of Weste's will is that, in general, most states have a very low bar on what level of mental functioning you have to have in order to create or alter an estate plan document. Don't assume. Go out and seek definitive answers from experienced estate planning professionals. You'll be glad for the information and you may find out the answers are more favorable than you would have thought.