MAY 26, 2003 VOLUME 10, NUMBER 47
An individual must be mentally competent before making a valid will, signing a contract or executing almost any legal document. Confusion often arises because the level of competence required may vary depending on what sort of document is being signed.
Take the case of Agnes Marquis of Bangor, Maine. In November, 2000, she met with her insurance agent for over an hour, discussed her plans with him, and then signed a change of beneficiary form naming nephew Daniel Pelletier to receive several annuity contracts. She told the insurance agent that Mr. Pelletier was the only relative who visited her on holidays, and he helped her run errands.
At about the same time Ms. Marquis was having other problems, according to witnesses. She believed that someone was talking to her through her television, that her dog had nursed her back to health when she fell ill, that unidentified Quakers were going to break into her house at night, and that she was going to marry Jesus. Ms. Marquis visited her doctor a week before and three weeks after she changed the annuity beneficiaries, and both times she was diagnosed as suffering from dementia.
Demented, delusional individuals can still sign new wills and change beneficiaries if they have the necessary level of mental capacity. The question in Ms. Marquis’ case was which level of capacity she needed.
Mr. Pelletier argued that the proper standard was "testamentary" capacity—the level required to make a change to one’s will. Under that test, Ms. Marquis would only have to know who her relatives were, have a general notion of the nature and extent of her assets, and understand the concept of naming someone to receive property after her death. The administrator of her estate argued, however, that Ms. Marquis required "contractual" capacity—the ability to understand the nature of an annuity contract as if she were entering into a new agreement, rather than simply changing beneficiaries. After a hearing the probate court agreed that contractual capacity was the proper standard, and that Ms. Marquis did not have sufficient capacity to change beneficiaries.
Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court upheld the trial judge’s decision. Though changing beneficiaries in an annuity or life insurance contract resembles making a will, it is really a revision of a contract and requires the higher level of capacity. The Court also ruled that there was sufficient evidence that Ms. Marquis lacked the necessary capacity, and ordered that the annuity proceeds be paid to her estate for distribution to the charities named in her will. Estate of Marquis, May 12, 2003.