Difficulties in Talking About Incompetence and Incapacity, Part IV

August 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

[This is Part IV of a paper by Attorney Tom Freeland, IV, of Oxford, presented at a seminar sponsored by the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services Elder Law Project, Jennie Kilgore, Director]

Wills and Powers of Attorney

Every person eighteen (18) years of age or older, being of sound and disposing mind, shall have power, by last will and testament, or codicil in writing, to devise all the estate, right, title and interest in possession, reversion, or remainder, which he or she hath, or at the time of his or her death shall have…

Miss. Code. Ann. § 91-5-1. The Mississippi courts have explained what “sound and disposing mind” means here:

For testamentary capacity to be present, the testator must be of “sound and disposing mind” at the time of the will’s execution. Miss.Code Ann. § 91–5–1 (Rev.2004); In re Estate of Edwards v. Edwards, 520 So.2d 1370, 1372 (Miss.1988); Weems, at § 4:3. The requirement of a sound and disposing mind does not mean the testator’s mind must be as good as it ever was. Weems, at § 4:3. Rather, the relevant test centers on the time the will is executed. At that time, the testator must: “understand and appreciate the nature and effect of his act [of making a will,] the natural objects or persons to receive his bounty and their relation to him, and [be] able to determine what disposition he desires to make of his property.” In re Estate of Mask v. Elrod, 703 So.2d 852, 856 (¶ 17) (Miss. 1997).

Noblin v. Burgess, 54 So. 3d 282, 291 (Miss. Ct. App. 2010).

Rather than focusing on the statutory language—”sound and disposing mind”—the courts focus on the test quoted from Estate of Mask and repeated in many other cases. Did the testator “understand and appreciate the nature and effect of his act?” That is, did the testator know he or she was making a will? Did the testator know the “natural objects or persons to receive this bounty and their relationship to him?” That is, did the testator know who his heirs would naturally be, and was making an intentional decision about disposition? Finally, was the testator “able to determine what disposition he desires to make…” That is, were the terms of the will established by the testator’s decision of what disposition to make.

The courts have moved away from a possible vagueness trap—what is “of sound mind?”— to more particular language that focuses on the testator’s understanding of what it means to make a will.

Another factor in the test is one of timing: The test for whether a person had capacity to make a will looks to capacity at the specific time the will was signed and witnessed. [Fn 5] This has led the Mississippi Supreme Court to reject medical testimony that a long-term patient lacked capacity due to age and illness and that it was “possible but improbable” that the patient had a lucid interval, in favor of testimony from the testator’s lawyer that the patient knew the extent of his property and established the provisions for the will, and where the testator told the witnesses that it was his will and he wanted them to witness it. Hayward v. Hawyard, 299 So.2d 207, 209 (Miss. 1974). Even findings that a testator had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia or where a conservatorship had been granted for mental instability, that testator can still be competent to make a will. Estate of McCorkle v. Beeson, 27 So.2d 1180, 1187-1188 (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). The Mississippi Supreme Court has held:

The general law (recognized by the chancellor) is that an insane person may execute a valid will ‘in a lucid interval.’ Gholson v. Peters, 180 Miss. 256, 176 So. 605 (1937). Although the conservator in this case had legal control of the property and estate of the testator, this did not affect the testamentary capacity of the one whose property was under the conservatorship. The key to testamentary capacity is mental competency at the time the will is made. Scally v. Wardlaw, 123 Miss. 857, 86 So. 625 (1920). Regardless of the existence of the conservatorship, one whose property is under conservatorship may execute a valid will during lucidity, if possessed of the requisite understanding and mental capacity.

Lee v. Lee, 337 So.2d 713, 714-15 (Miss. 1976).

[Fn 5] If there is a codicil to the will, the test of competency looks to the time of the codicil because the codicil republishes the will.

A final question of competency or capacity is the competency to make a power of attorney. Mississippi’s Uniform Durable Power of Attorney Act provides no guidance except that it provides that, where the principal (the maker of a power of attorney) lapses into incapacity, the powers granted continue, “as if the principal were competent and not disabled.” Miss. Code Ann. § 87-3-307. This creates the problem of a holder of a power of attorney who ignores his fiduciary duties and abuses the power with a client who is incapacitated and therefore no longer has the capacity to cancel the grant of the power. [Fn 6]  At that point, the only real solution would be the appointment of a conservator, an appointment that many use a power of attorney to avoid.

The Court of Appeals has attempted to bridge this gap in statutory definition for competency to make a power of attorney by looking to the test for making a will. Dowdy v. Smith, 818 So.2d 1255, 1258-59 (Miss. Ct. App. 2002). While not justified by statute, this is understandable because it involves adoption of the clearest of the tests discussed in this article, and because it looks to the capacity of a maker of an instrument at the moment the instrument is made:

We find that a fair analogy is the standard for determining whether a testator has the capacity to execute a will. Both a general power of attorney and a last will and testament require an appreciation of the nature and extent of a grantor’s estate and the effects of a potential distribution.

At least until the Supreme Court opines otherwise, this is the best indication we have of the capacity the maker of a power of attorney must hold.

[Fn 6] The prospect of a holder of a power of attorney whose principal was incapacitated is one of many possible abuses. The author is aware of deeds in the land records of Lafayette County made by a holder of a power of attorney after the death of the principal, in violation of Miss. Code Ann. § 87-3-111 (cancelling powers of attorney on death). The deeds were also, on their face, self-dealing.

Conclusion

Clear or definitive answers are not available even when focusing just on the legal profession in an attempt to pin down or establish a clear meaning for the terms “incompetence” or “incapacity.” The courts and legislature have not agreed on precise or consistent meanings. There is statutory overlap in areas that seem distinct—a guardian looks over the person of the ward, while a conservator looks over the estate unless the court decides otherwise. These tensions are exacerbated when an attempt is made to look beyond the courts and law and ask what meaning these terms may have to other professions.

[Thanks to Mr. Freeland for allowing me to share this informative paper with blog readers.]

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