In a recent decision in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Bergen County (In the Matter of the Estate of Louis Spadaccini, Deceased), the Honorable Peter E. Doyne, reviewed the current case law dealing with "lack of testamentary capacity " and "undue influence" in probate litigation and will contests.
On the issue of whether an individual has the "testamentary capacity" to execute a will, Judge Doyne noted that the mental capacity of a testator is to be tested as of the time of the execution of the will. Gellert v. Livingston, 5 N.J. 65 (1950). The test of whether an individual has the necessary testamentary capacity to execute a will centers around whether the testator was able to comprehend and understand: the property he was about to dispose; the natural objects of his bounty; the meaning of the business in which he is engaged; the relation of each of these factors to the other and the manner of distribution that is set forth in the will. See, In re Will of Landsman, N.J. Super. 252, 267 (App.Div. 1999).
In addition to what the party claiming a lack of testamentary capacity must prove, the contestant usually has the burden of proving that there was a lack of capacity by clear and convincing evidence, In re Coffin’s Estate, 103 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 1968), as it is presumed that the testator was of sound mind and competent when a will is executed. Haynes v. First National State Bank, 87 N.J. 163, 175-176 (1981).
On the issue of "undue influence", Judge Doyne, citing the Haynes case, noted that undue influence is the "mental, moral or physical" exertion which destroys the "free agency of the testator" by preventing him "from following the dictates of his own mind and will and accepting instead the domination and influence of another." As in the case of testamentary capacity, the burden of proving undue influence falls upon the party claiming that there was undue influence.
However, of particular significance is the fact that the burden of proof will switch if it can be shown that a confidential relationship existed between the testator and beneficiary and suspicious circumstances are present.
These basic concepts and points of law are relevant to almost every will contest. Unfortunately, probate litigation usually involves fights among family members where the relationship has deteriorated over the years. When a loved one dies, some family members will have remained close with the decedent, and the relationship with others will have faded. Whatever the relationship, questions as to the disposition of a loved one’s assets often present issues of capacity and undue influence.