New York Testators: Incompetent or Just Eccentric? - New York Estate Planning News

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New York Testators: Incompetent or Just Eccentric?

New York is home to many, shall we say, vibrant personalities. From The Naked Cowboy to Amanda Bynes, it's often hard to tell the difference between incompetence and mere eccentricity in the Big Apple.

Fortunately, from a legal perspective, there are certain factors courts use to separate the weird from the legally worrisome.

Testamentary Capacity

In New York, testamentary capacity generally requires that the testator be aware of the following when signing the will:

  • The nature of the action (namely, that she knows she is signing a will and intends to do it);
  • The extent and value of her property;
  • The natural beneficiaries of her estate; and
  • The disposition she is making.

However, the rules become more difficult to apply to testators coming to grips with dementia.

Dementia and Eccentricity

The onset of dementia is a sad reality of the aging process. As Etta James' family allegedly witnessed in the iconic singer, the decline is a tortuous one.

In the estate planning context, a testator with dementia is considered incompetent when he or she is no longer able to make logical and consistent estate planning decisions. Such testators must be declared incompetent.

But as we saw in the case of Gore Vidal, it's often difficult to recognize when -- if at all -- an eccentric person has succumbed to the pangs of dementia and become legally incompetent.

For such people, the key is to find a sense of logic to the decision. In general, it does not matter if the plan is eccentric so long as it is logical and consistent. The test for rationality is that the plan holds together logically.

Eccentricity or lack of prudence is not incapacity. It's OK (though not necessarily advisable) to make foolish, socially deviant, risky, or simply "crazy" testamentary choices.

It's when you're no longer lucid or able to understand what it is you're doing that it's time to plan for incapacity.

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