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Legal Memorandum: Establishing Testamentary Capacity

Issue: Under New York law, how does the proponent of a will establish testamentary capacity?

Area of Law: Estate Planning & Probate
Keywords: Testamentary capacity; Sound mind and memory
Jurisdiction: New York
Cited Cases: 756 N.Y.S.2d 305; 710 N.Y.S.2d 668; 302 A.D.2d 721; 496 N.Y.S.2d 414; 665 N.Y.S.2d 980
Cited Statutes: N.Y. EPTL 3-1.1;
Date: 03/01/2004

The applicable statute requires that a testator be of “sound mind and memory.”  N.Y. EPTL 3-1.1.   To establish this, the Court of Appeals suggests that it is sufficient for a proponent to submit the testimony of the subscribing witnesses and others close to decedent at the time who testify decedent was “alert and capable of understanding the nature of her actions.”  In re Estate of Kumstar, 66 N.Y.2d 691, 692, 496 N.Y.S.2d 414, 487 NE 2d 271 (1985); see In re Estate of Sweetland, 273 A.D.2d 739, 740, 710 N.Y.S.2d 668, 670 (3d Dep’t. 2000).  “[T]he appropriate inquiry is whether the decedent was lucid and rational at the time the will was made.”  In re Estate of Buchanan, 245 A.D.2d 642, 644, 665 N.Y.S.2d 980, 983 (3d Dep’t 1997).

In addition to general observations of a testator’s mental acuity, the Court of Appeals suggests that in making a determination of testamentary capacity courts pay particular attention to the following three specific factors: (1) whether the testator understood the nature and consequences of making a will; (2) whether the testator knew the nature and extent of the property he was disposing of; and (3) whether he knew those who would be considered the natural objects of his bounty and his relations with them.  In re Kumstar, 66 N.Y.2d at 692.   There is a presumption that a testator knows the contents of a duly executed will.  In re Estate of Seelig, 302 A.D.2d 721, 722, 756 N.Y.S.2d 305, 308 […]

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