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Dementia alone does not prevent someone from executing a valid Will

In Creamer v. Manley, decided March 14, 2024, the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment upholding the validity of a Will.

In summary, Willifred Thompson executed a Will leaving substantially all of her estate to Mable Manley, her caregiver. Two second cousins, Barbara Creamer and Gordon Lowe, filed a caveat alleging that Thompson lacked testamentary capacity and that the Will was the product of undue influence.

At a hearing evidence was taken showing that Thompson met alone with her long-time attorney. The attorney discussed the Will with her and sent a draft home with her so she could review it. She later came back and executed it. There was no evidence that Manley was involved in the preparation or execution of the Will. The attorney testified that he saw nothing that would make him question Thompson’s understanding of the Will or her ability to execute it. The subscribing witnesses similarly testified that they saw nothing that would cause them to question her ability to execute her Will. Although there was a diagnosis of dementia, her doctor gave an affidavit that he could not speak to her state of mind on the day the Will was executed. Further, when he saw her after the Will was executed, he indicated she was of sound mind.

There are a number of interesting tidbits in this case and we will take them in order.

Summary Judgment

The standard on a motion for summary judgment is:

On appeal from the grant of summary judgment, this [c]ourt construes the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion to determine whether the record shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. In a will case, the propounder establishes a prima facie showing of testamentary capacity by offering testimony of the subscribing witnesses that the testator appeared to be of sound mind and that [s]he acted freely and voluntarily when [s]he executed [her] will. To avoid summary judgment, the caveator must then show that a genuine issue of material fact remains on the question of testamentary capacity. Prine v. Blanton, 290 Ga. 307, 308 (1) (720 SE2d 600) (2012) (citations and punctuation omitted).

Manley presented a prima facia case that the Will was valid and affidavits concerning the testator’s mental status at times other than when the Will was executed did not refute that case.

Testamentary capacity

A diagnosis of dementia, alone, does not prevent someone from making a valid Will. Testamentary capacity exists when the testator has a decided and rational desire as to the disposition of property and the controlling question is whether the testator had sufficient testamentary capacity at the time of executing the will. In Georgia a lucid moment is enough so long as it occurred at the time the Will was executed.

The Court of Appeals stated: “Under these circumstances, “[r]egardless of the stigma associated with the term `[dementia]’, [the doctor’s affidavit] does not show how [Thompson] would have been unable to form a rational desire regarding the disposition of her assets. Indeed, [he] offered no explanation of how her . . . condition would affect her competency to make a valid will.” Wilson v. Lane, 279 Ga. 492, 493 (614 SE2d 88) (2005). Without such an explanation, a mere “reference to . . . dementia cannot eliminate testamentary capacity. If it could, it would undermine societal confidence in the validity and sanctity of our testamentary system.” Id. Under that system, “[t]he mental capacity to make a will is modest, and the law requires only that the testatrix have a decided and rational desire as to the disposition of her property. Indeed, testamentary capacity may be possessed by weak-minded or feeble individuals. And anything less than a total absence of mind does not destroy testamentary capacity.”

Undue Influence

If anything destroys the testator’s volition, then the Will is not valid. When a confidential relationship exists, there can be a presumption of indue influence. However, in this case, “the uncontradicted evidence showed that Thompson used her own long-time lawyer to prepare the will; Manley was not part of the discussions about the will between Thompson and her lawyer; Thompson told her lawyer that she was not under any undue influence; Thompson declared that the will was of her own making and done freely; and the testamentary scheme in the will was Thompson’s alone, and not anyone else’s scheme.”

The evidence in this case showed that as a matter of law, the probate court’s order granting summary judgment must be affirmed.




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