A Massachusetts testator must be of sound mind when executing a will

For a will to be valid, there must be testamentary capacity at the time of signing.

One of the key requirements for a Massachusetts will to be valid is that the testator - the person writing and signing the instrument who wants to direct how his or her property will be distributed at death - be of sound mind at the time the will is signed. Being of sound mind means that the testator had adequate testamentary capacity to understand some basic issues when the will was executed.

After a testator has died, when a will is filed to be probated (found valid and ordered carried out), Massachusetts law presumes that the decedent was of sound mind when the will was signed. If evidence is presented that he or she actually did not have testamentary capacity, the presumption fails and the person submitting the will, usually a close relative or someone named as a beneficiary in the will, must prove that the testator did have adequate competence to make the will.

Historically, Massachusetts courts have faced this issue many times, so the case law is richly developed and provides detailed guidance. To have testamentary capacity, the person must be cognizant in general of his or her property, of persons who would have claims on his property (usually close family) and of what the act of executing a will means.

The testator does not need to understand these factors at a high level, such as that required to enter into a binding contract. Only a basic understanding is sufficient. It is possible to have adequate comprehension even if the person has a conservator or has lost some sharpness of mind due to the aging process.

The key focus is on the person's state of mind at the specific time the will was signed, rather than over time or on most days. Even if the testator had ongoing physical or mental illness, was in severe pain, was taking medication that could impact mental processes, or sometimes exhibited confusion, mental deterioration or incapacity, if at the time of signing he or she exhibited signs of requisite understanding, testamentary capacity may still be found.

Testimony about observations of the decedent on the day the will was executed is relevant to soundness of mind at that time such as from family, friends, attending medical personnel, treating physicians, attorneys and their staff, and witnesses to the will signing.

Massachusetts law surrounding testamentary capacity is complicated and each case highly factually specific. Anyone facing the issue of the soundness of mind of a testator should speak with an experienced lawyer for information and guidance.

From his office in Dedham, Alan J. Pransky, Attorney at Law, represents clients in matters of probate, estate administration and related litigation in the Greater Boston area.