Growing Old and Issues of Diminished Capacity
The law assumes that adult individuals have mental capacity, that is, they are capable of making rational decisions on their own behalf. Note we say they are “capable” of making rational decisions. The law doesn’t expect or require that they actually make rational decisions. Competent individuals of all ages, old and young, have the right to make foolish, eccentric or idiosyncratic decisions. For better or worse, all of us are free to make bad decisions.
A persons’s capacity may change from day to day (or even during the day), depending on the course of the illness, fatigue and the effects of medication. Some folks have good days and bad days. Some are more alert in the morning; some have their best time in the afternoon. Legal competency is not something that a person either has or doesn’t have –it can be quite variable.
Whether or not a person is legally competent depends on the purpose for which the capacity is being determined. The law provides a different standard of competency for 1) making contracts, 2) making wills, 3) having a guardian appointed, 4) and giving informed consent to medical treatment.
Whether or not a person is competent is a legal determination, not a medical one. Medical testimony is important, and is always sought by a court in making the determination of capacity. Since the law has many different defined standards depending on the action being taken, the determination of whether or not a person is competent to do a certain thing is always a legal decision.
What surprises most people is that the capacity to make a will, called testamentary capacity, is the lowest level of capacity in the law. All that is required is that the person making the will (1) understand in a general away, the nature of his property, (2) knows who are the “natural objects of his bounty,” that is, the persons who would normally be his heirs, and (3) must be able to comprehend that he or she is making a will.
A person who has had a stroke, or is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, may still have sufficient capacity to make a will even though there is some impairment of speech, some impairment of thought processes, and/or some physical impairment. The fact that a client does not know the year or the name of the President does not necessarily mean that she can not make a will. Since signing a will does not require a great deal of capacity, the fact that the next day the person does not remember the signing of a will does not invalidate the will if he had the minimum required capacity the day before when he signed it.