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Court Affirmed a Judgment That a Will Was Invalid Due to Mental Incapacity

In Mittelsted v. Meriwether, the decedent changed his will and beneficiary designations on bank accounts to leave everything to his half-brother. No. 14-21-00755-CV, 2023 Tex. App. LEXIS 1020 (Tex. App.—Houston February 16, 2023, no pet. history). The decedent’s sisters challenged these transactions for mental incompetence, and the jury found for the sisters. The half-brother appealed.

The court first affirmed the trial court’s admission of certain testimony of an expert medical witness. Although the court did not allow the witness to opine on mental capacity and undue influence, the court did allow the witness to testify about specific conditions. The expert opined:

Dr. Adhia reviewed records and affidavits in addition to interviewing several individuals. The records reviewed included medical records from Jack’s primary care doctor and the medical examiner’s report from Jack’s autopsy. Dr. Adhia explained that, according to those records, Jack had suffered at least one stroke (although his family told Dr. Adhia that Jack had likely had two strokes), had generalized anxiety disorder, and had hypertension. Jack also suffered from chronic alcoholism—which was identified as contributing to his death—and was sedentary and disabled. Jack did not regularly seek medical care and often failed to take prescribed medications, choosing to self-medicate by drinking alcohol instead.

Based on this information, Dr. Adhia opined that Jack was incapable of performing or had difficulty performing basic and instrumental activities of daily living. He described “basic” activities of daily living as “simple” tasks, like toileting, bathing, and walking. “Instrumental” activities are a “higher form” of daily living, like shopping, taking medications, and using transportation. Jack needed both physical and mental assistance with performing tasks, such as cleaning himself and his house, visiting the bank, purchasing alcohol, or communicating with his attorney. Jack was highly dependent on others, specifically Donovan, due to Jack’s medical conditions, psychiatric conditions, and substance use disorder. Jack’s “excessive alcohol intake” impacted his medical condition and his ability to perform activities of daily living, as evidenced by the fact that Jack “was basically in his bed much of the time.”

Id. The court concluded:

Dr. Adhia’s limited testimony regarding the “perfect storm” created by stroke, medications, and alcoholism, was based on his training and experience as a forensic psychiatrist, as well as on the information contained in the records provided to him. The fact that Dr. Adhia did not review every possible record goes to the weight of his testimony, not its admissibility, and did not render it speculative.

Id. The court also addressed the admission of testimony from a lay witness and held that such was not in error.

The court then addressed the decedent’s capacity to execute a will. The court held:

A testator has testamentary capacity when he has sufficient mental ability to understand that he is making a will, and the general nature and extent of his property. He also must know the natural objects of his bounty, the claims upon them, and have sufficient memory to collect in his mind the elements of the business transacted and hold them long enough to form a reasonable judgment about them. In a will contest, the pivotal issue is whether the testator had testamentary capacity on the day the will was executed. However, evidence of the testator’s state of mind at other times can be used to prove his state of mind on the day the will was executed provided the evidence demonstrates a condition affecting his testamentary capacity was persistent and likely present at the time the will was executed. “Incapacity to make a will . . . is a subtle thing, and must be established to a great extent, at least so far as lay witnesses are concerned, by circumstantial evidence.”

Id. The court reviewed the evidence, including the medical expert’s testimony, and held that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding of incompetence. The court also held that the jury could have reasonably rejected the testimony of the self-interested half-brother and other witnesses at the will signing (the attorney had not questioned the decedent before signing the will). The court concluded:

Considering all the evidence both in support of and against the finding, the jury reasonably could have found that Jack lacked testamentary capacity on February 12, 2019. Several witnesses testified that Jack began to decline mentally at some point in 2018. By the beginning of 2019, Mike felt that Jack was “slipping away.” According to Dr. Adhia, Jack suffered from heart disease, panic disorder, and chronic alcoholism. His stroke likely led to impaired cognition and Jack was unable to do basic daily tasks without assistance. Donovan admitted that Jack’s symptoms “progressed” over time after the stroke. Several witnesses testified that Jack was not of “sound mind” to make major decisions in 2018 and continuing into 2019. When witnesses spoke to Jack in person or over the phone, it was difficult or impossible to engage Jack, who “looped” in his train of thought or was “flat,” with “no affect.” In short, the evidence supports a finding that Jack developed a persistent condition or conditions affecting his testamentary capacity, which were likely present when the will was executed.

Id. The court also addressed the decedent’s capacity to execute account beneficiary designations:

Documents executed by one who lacks sufficient legal or mental capacity may be avoided. To have mental capacity, the person executing the instrument must have had sufficient mind and memory to understand the nature and effect of his act at the time of the document’s execution. Capacity may be assessed by considering such factors as (1) the person’s outward conduct demonstrating an “inward and causing condition,” (2) preexisting external circumstances tending to produce a special mental condition, and (3) the person’s mental condition before or after the relevant point in time from which her mental capacity or incapacity may be inferred.

Id. The held that the evidence that supported the finding of incapacity to execute a will also supported the finding of incapacity to execute the bank documents. The court also referenced testimony from a witness who testified that the decedent did not remember signing any new bank documents. The court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of the contestant.

© 2023 Winstead PC.National Law Review, Volume XIII, Number 152

About this Author

David Johnson Financial Institution lLtigation Winstead Law Firm Fort Worth Texas
Managing Shareholder - Fort Worth

David maintains an active trial and appellate practice and has consistently worked on financial institution litigation matters throughout his career. David is the primary author of the Texas Fiduciary Litigator blog, which reports on legal cases and issues impacting the fiduciary field in Texas. 

David's financial institution experience includes (but is not limited to): breach of contract, foreclosure litigation, lender liability, receivership and injunction remedies upon default, non-recourse and other real estate lending, class...