Estate Planning Lawyer in Texas: Understanding Testamentary Capacity

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What happens sometimes is a person procrastinates and does not prepare a last will and testament in Texas until the last minute when they are aging and health-wise, more vulnerable. This person may or may not have the testamentary capacity to fulfill the requirements of a valid Will. On the one hand, they may be more susceptible to undue influence, fraud, and duress, which would––even if the testator has testamentary capacity––invalidate the Will. On the other hand, upon the testator's death, even though the Will is offered to probate as valid, the question of testamentary capacity makes it vulnerable to a Will contest. All of this makes it harder and longer for heirs to receive their benefits and inheritance. 

Testamentary Capacity as a Requirement of a Valid Will in Texas

To make a legally valid Will, the testator must have testamentary capacity. A four-prong test guides us on how testamentary capacity may be determined: 

  1. Did the testator appreciate the nature and consequences of creating the Will?
  2. Did the testator know the extent and nature of their property?
  3. Did the testator know the relationship between the testator and the proposed beneficiaries?
  4. Was the testator unaffected by any disorder of the mind or insane delusion?

It is presumed that when a Will is offered to probate, it is valid. That presumption, however, is rebuttable and so, it is contestable. 

Indeed, challenging a will based on the testator's testamentary capacity is rather common. The challenger has the burden to show the testator lacked capacity. If it is shown that the testator did not have capacity, it is invalid and will be disregarded. The decedent's estate will then likely pass to their heirs through probate.

Distinguishing the Difference between Testamentary Capacity and Testamentary Intent in Texas

Testamentary capacity is directly linked to another requirement of a valid Will: testamentary intent. Testamentary intent considers whether the testator, at the time the Will was executed, subjectively intended the contents of the Will. Here, too, there is a presumption that the testator is familiar with and knows what the contents of the Will are since they presumably prepared it or directed its preparation.

Intent comes into question when there are allegations of:

  • Undue influence, where another person improperly substitute's their wants in place of the testator's will
  • Fraud, when a person knowingly makes a Will but its terms are based on material misrepresentation of facts made to the testator by someone who will benefit from the misrepresentation
  • Mistake, where the testator intended to execute their Will but made a mistake and signed another document (e.g., another draft of the Will that no longer represents the testator's intention)

If it shows that the testator lacked testamentary intent, the probate judge may invalidate the Will.

In sum, testamentary capacity is about the testator's ability to understand the Will while testamentary intent is about the testator's intentions reflected properly in the Will.

A Lack of Testamentary Capacity Can Invalidate a Will in Texas

As mentioned, people who think that a testator lacked the legal capacity to make a Will can contest the Will in court if they have legal standing. If they can prove that one of the elements of testamentary capacity was not present at the time the testator created and signed their Will, the court can invalidate the Will.

If a will is invalid, property listed in the Will will pass to the decedent's heirs through the state's intestacy law.

Protect a Will in Texas against Challenges Based on Lack of Testamentary Capacity

Testators must be very clear that they possess testamentary capacity, especially when the Will is created at a later stage in life. Testators can take an extra step to forestall a contested Will by creating “self-proving” wills. 

Self-proving wills are sworn statements signed by witnesses affirming that the testator was coherent and lucid at the time the Will was signed. These “self-proving” Wills help defeat challenges based on testamentary capacity.

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