Q: My father’s mental status has been declining this past year and now I’ve discovered he doesn’t have any planning in place. Does his diminished mental capacity mean it is too late for him to do estate planning?
A: Not necessarily. If your father’s attending physician has not declared him incompetent, and he still has some capacity, your father may be able to execute legally binding estate planning documents. There are different levels of capacity required for an individual to sign some legal documents versus others. For example, it takes more capacity for an individual to sign a Last Will and Testament than a General Durable Power of Attorney for financial decisions. To determine what level of capacity your Dad has and, thus what planning he is legally competent to execute, he will need to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney. Some of the questions an attorney may ask while visiting with your father include:
Part of an estate planning attorney’s role is to evaluate a client’s competency (or incompetency), as legal capacity or competency requires a subjective opinion provided by a trained attorney. Sound mind a/k/a capacity is determined on a situation-by-situation basis, as legal capacity can fluctuate, even from day-to-day. Attorneys are trained to assess a client’s legal capacity and proceed to a signing only if they believe the client meets the standards of competency necessary for the execution of a client’s legal documents.
It’s common for family members of clients who have diminished capacity to request appointments at very specific times of day because their mental clarity is best at that time. For example, they may struggle to understand certain events in the morning but exhibit a good understanding in the afternoon. Mental capacity can fluctuate due to any number of factors: medication, illness, lack of sleep, stress, time of day, etc... It is possible that a client is legally competent one day and incompetent days or even hours later. Failing to have full capacity all day, every day does not prohibit a person from executing estate planning documents. If, in an experienced attorney’s opinion, the client meets the basic threshold of legal competency at the time of signing documents, those documents are legally binding.
Because your father has some diminished capacity, it is extremely important that you choose a highly reputable estate planning attorney to assist him with his estate planning. If you have a contentious family who may dispute your father’s estate planning, make sure to let your attorney know so that they can take every precaution to determine legal capacity and to document his/her findings in the client’s file. If your family is contentious, we recommend that your father meet privately with his attorney so that there is no doubt that the contents of his planning were voluntarily and willfully made by your father, without undue influence from you or anyone else.
If you have questions about diminished capacity or any Kansas estate planning topic, contact Davis & McCann, P.A., Dodge City, Kansas at 620-225-1674. We are members of Wealth Counsel, a national consortium of Estate Planning Attorneys and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). We focus our practice on providing clients with the best legal advice on Estate Planning, Medicaid and Long-term Care Planning, Special Needs Planning, Family Business/Small Business Succession Planning, Probate, Trust Administration, Real Estate, 1031 Exchanges, and related matters.
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