The difference between mental capacity and undue influence

Whether you have reason to contest a will or you are an individual with fiduciary responsibility to another’s estate faced with defending such challenges, it is important to understand how the law can influence the proceedings.

Challenges to the various transactions that can make up an estate plan are not uncommon in New York, especially when one of the parties is elderly or infirm. Whether the instrument is a will, some kind of trust, a second marriage, or something else, when challenges surface they typically include the claim that the plan’s signatory lacked necessary mental capacity to agree to it, and/or that the plan reflects the undue influence of some other party. However, while both might be raised, they might not always be applicable. So, consulting an attorney is essential.

Burden of proof is one source of confusion

The thing that readers need to keep in mind is that despite their potential relationship, they are distinct. And identifying who bears the burden of proving the elements to support claims depends on varying factors.

One common error many make when considering bringing a claim of diminished mental status is that the party making the claim is responsible for first showing that the signatory lacked the legal capacity to put pen to paper. However, the requirements for gauging appropriate legal capacity differ according to the transaction in question.

For example, in most cases there is a presumption of legal capacity and it is up to the person claiming incapacity to prove otherwise. But in the case of a will, that burden rests with the individual who submits the will for probate.

Compare that to the level of capacity that the law requires for entering a civil contract, such as a marriage or creating a trust. To be valid, precedent requires that parties entering such agreements be able to clearly comprehend and understand the nature of the transaction.

In the case of a claim of undue influence, it isn’t necessary to prove legal incapacity. Rather, the law defines undue influence as any improper pressure by another that induces a person to execute an instrument he or she would not have by his or her own free will.

In short, undue influence could be exercised over someone with legal mental capacity through subtle manipulation. And understanding the difference between legal capacity and undue influence is likely to be important in probate litigation matters.

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