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What is the meaning of the term “capacity” in California?

What is the meaning of the term “capacity” in California?

Many people, particularly estate planning lawyers toss the term “capacity” out as though everyone knows what the term means. Often you hear people talk about someone “losing capacity” in the sense of not being able to make a will or trust or take care of their finances. What exactly does the term “capacity” mean in the context of making a will or a trust?

The California Probate Code provides that a person is not “mentally competent”to make at will if either of the following is true:
1. The individual does not have sufficient mental capacity to be able to (A) understand the nature of the testamentary act, (B) understand and recollect the nature and situation of the individual’s property, or (C) remember and understand the individual’s relations to living descendants, spouse, and parents, and those whose interests are affected by the will. OR 2. The individual suffers from a mental disorder with symptoms including delusions or hallucinations which delusions or hallucinations result in the individual’s devising property in a way which, except for the existence of the delusions or hallucinations, the individual would not have done.

The California Probate also provides that someone does not have “mental capacity” if at the time they are making a will or a trust they lack the ability to communicate verbally or by any other means and to understand and appreciate (a) the rights, duties, and responsibilities created by, or affected by the decision, (b) the probable consequences for the decisionmaker and, where appropriate, the persons affected by the decision, and (c) the significant risks, benefits, and reasonable alternatives involved in the decision.

Stated simply, capacity is the ability to make decisions for yourself. It includes memory, attention, logic, information processing, verbal comprehension, and the ability to concentrate and stay on task. In the area of estate planning, it means that you can make your own decisions about your estate plan by understanding what assets you have, who you want to leave your estate to, who you want to make financial and health care decisions for you if you are unable to make those yourself, and what the various provisions in a will or trust mean.

A person may lack capacity due to dementia, brain injury, mental illness, or a progressive medical condition or disease. A person may lack capacity permanently or temporarily such as when someone has been injured in an accident but then recovers. Sometimes a medical assessment is necessary to evaluate a person’s level of memory, cognition, and judgment before important legal decisions are made.

The reason this is important is that once a person has lost his or her mental capacity, they are no longer able to execute such documents as wills, trusts, or powers of attorney. If you need assistance with estate planning documents, we offer a free consultation. Call us at Law Office of Scott C. Soady, A Professional Corporation for an appointment.

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