Can a Person with Dementia Sign Legal Documents? (Part 2)

MARCH 4, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 9
Last week we posed the question, and then mostly wrote about competence (or capacity) to sign a will. We promised to explain more about the level of competence required to sign other documents. So let us now tackle that concept.

A person with a diagnosis of dementia may well be able to sign legal documents, at least in Arizona. We suspect that the answer should be pretty much the same in other states, but if you are curious about your own state you should check with a local attorney about how competence is determined.

Generally speaking, competence or capacity is usually analyzed situationally. That is, the question will be answered differently depending on the nature of the document and the circumstances of the signing. The general rule: the signer has to have sufficient understanding to know what the document is, and the effect of the signing.

What kinds of documents might be involved? There are a variety of contexts in which capacity can be difficult to assess, including (but not limited to):

  • Ability to sign a contract — say to buy a car, or build a home.
  • Understanding of a power of attorney, which might give the authority to another person to sign future documents.
  • Competence to sign a trust, which might have elements of agency (like a power of attorney) and testamentary effect (like a will).
  • Capacity to get married (which is, after all, a specialized kind of contract).
  • Ability to make medical decisions — including refusing medication, or either seeking or declining mental health treatment.

Each of those situations, and the dozens of others that might arise, will be judged differently, because the nature and effect of the act will be different. But we can generalize about several of the important rules that cut across types of documents:

  • Minority is presumptive incapacity. That is, a person under age 18 does not have the legal ability to enter into a contract, get married, sign a trust (or will), or make medical decisions for themselves. There are, however, exceptions — a contract for “necessaries” (food, shelter, etc.) may be enforceable if signed by a minor. An “emancipated” minor may be able to do some things that an unemancipated minor can not.
  • It may not be necessary to have capacity to do the underlying thing before giving the authority to someone else. What? Let us explain: a person who might not have the capacity to enter into a complicated contract might still have sufficient capacity to sign a power of attorney giving someone else the power to sign the contract.
  • Arizona’s legislature has decided that the capacity level required to sign a trust should be the same as testamentary capacity, as we described last week. That may mean that someone who does not have sufficient capacity to sign a power of attorney could nonetheless sign a trust, which gives even broader authority to the trustee. Odd result, but mostly theoretical, as it’s hard to find someone in just that circumstance.
  • Generally speaking, most observers think that the capacity to sign a will is a lower level of competence than contractual or other forms of capacity. But it might not be that hard to describe someone who adequately understands the nature of a power of attorney but does not have an understanding at the level of testamentary capacity.
  • There are few legal ways to determine capacity in advance. Challenges to capacity are almost always initiated after the signing is completed — and often after the signer has died, or become completely and undeniably incompetent. That means that evidence of capacity (or lack of capacity) is often being reconstructed well after the fact.

It’s also important to remember that we are writing here about competence/capacity, and not necessarily about the validity of documents signed by someone with dementia. In response to our article last week, one reader wrote to us:

“You covered dementia issues very clearly. Thank you! But what about the issue of undue influence in the presence of known dementia where, in principle, the demented person otherwise possesses testamentary capacity? How does the mix of those two aspects play out?”

It’s a very good point. There is a difference between capacity (or competence) on the one hand, and undue influence on the other. Dementia might make a given signer incapable of signing a document, or their competence may be sufficient to sign. But that same person might be made more susceptible to undue influence because of their dementia.

What do we mean? Let’s give an example — drawn from our considerable experience with the distinction. An elderly widower, living alone, has a diagnosis of dementia. He is nonetheless charming, witty and perfectly able to discuss his wishes. He can recall the names of his three children, and of his seven grandchildren. He can report their ages, the cities they live in and their careers (or status as students) — and he is mostly correct, though sometimes his information is two or three years out of date.

This gentleman’s daughter lives in the same city, and is the one who oversees his living arrangements and care. She does his shopping, hires people to check on him daily, takes him to doctors’ appointments, writes out his checks (he still signs them) and otherwise helps out. She also talks to him endlessly about how his other two children don’t deserve to end up with his house and bank accounts, how she really ought to be the one who benefits from his estate, and how his late wife (her mother) always wanted her to inherit everything. Eventually he agrees to sign a new will and trust, mostly to stop her constant harangues.

Was he competent to sign the new estate planning documents? On the facts as we’ve given them here, probably yes. Was he unduly influenced? Very likely. Was that influence facilitated (and the proof made easier) because of his dementia? Absolutely.

When did the daughter’s behavior cross the line? The legal system isn’t actually very helpful, since the answer is defined in a circular fashion. Her influence was “undue” when it resulted in her wishes being substituted for his. It was not necessarily objectionable (at least not legally) when she told him what she wished he would do, what her mother had wanted, or what was fair. But at some point she may well have turned ordinary familial influence into “undue” influence.

We hope that helps explain this complicated and nuanced area of the law. But we want to leave you with a completely unrelated, but important, note: Kieran Hartley York joined the Fleming & Curti family (literally) on Sunday, March 3. We are delighted to have met the little guy, and look forward to great things from him in the future.

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