ESTATE AND FINANCIAL PLANNING
The Completely Insane Law of Partial Insanity
The conflict between monomania and testamentary freedom cannot be resolved.
Is it possible to be just a little crazy? At what point does a delusion or hallucination become so significant that it destroys testamentary capacity? Courts have long held that a testator suffering from an insane delusion cannot execute a valid will if the will is a product of the delusion. The delusion renders the will invalid even if the testator had sufficient mental capacity in all other aspects of her life.
The problem is that in creating a test for an insane delusion, or monomania, courts have fashioned rules that are simultaneously over- and under-inclusive. Insane delusion law considers the wrong issues. Instead of considering the testator’s mental abilities—as done in most capacity decisions—the monomania doctrine attempts to determine why the testator believed what he believed and why he did what he did. This subjective state of mind is particularly difficult to prove because the best witness—the testator—is deceased.
In order for a court to invalidate a will based on the testator’s insane delusion, the contestant must prove two facts. First, the contestant must show that the testator suffered from an insane delusion. Conclusions that are merely wrong, unjust, or arbitrary will not prevent probate—the testator’s belief must be insane. Second, the contestant must show that the will was a “product” of the insane delusion. In essence, the contestant must show that the insane delusion caused the testator to dispose of her property in a way that she otherwise would not have done.
The standards for monomania not only lead to arbitrary results, they also provide fact finders—both judges and juries—with significant leeway to express their biases. Generally, these biases run in favor of traditional dispositive schemes, such as leaving property only to close family and treating all children equally. Thus, the doctrine of monomania conflicts with the policy of testamentary freedom—an individual’s freedom to control the disposition of his property at his death.
Testamentary capacity. Testamentary capacity is a question of fact to be determined by the fact finder. At the moment the will was executed, the testator must have had the ability to know the natural objects of his bounty, know the nature and extent of his property, and understand the consequences of making a will. The testator does not, however, need an encyclopedic recall of the natural objects of his bounty or his property. Indeed, testamentary capacity requires a relatively low degree of mental ability. Courts have frequently stated that an individual may execute a valid will even though his capacity is significantly impaired.
The role of the dispositive scheme in determining testamentary capacity is an issue that frequently confronts the courts. This is also the area in which the issue of capacity is most likely to conflict with testamentary freedom. A competent testator is free to dispose of her property in any manner she chooses. In some cases, however, the choices the testator makes arguably show a lack of testamentary capacity (for example, favoring one child over others for no apparent reason). Such a dispositive scheme is deemed “unnatural.” An unnatural distribution is evidence of incapacity.
Monomania. A will is found invalid for lack of testamentary capacity because of monomania if: (1) the testator was suffering from an insane delusion and (2) the will is a product of that delusion.
A delusion is an insane delusion only if it has absolutely no basis in fact. Even a “glimmer” of a factual basis for the delusion renders the delusion not insane. However, delusions almost always have some, perhaps trivial, basis in fact. Thus, if the requirement that the delusion have absolutely no basis in fact is strictly applied, few, if any, wills would be rejected based on monomania. The doctrine would be rendered vacuous.
Some courts have adopted a more flexible standard, holding, for example, that an insane delusion is a belief in something that “no man of sound mind could give . . . credence.” However, there are two problems with this standard. First, this standard amounts to a statement that an insane delusion is a belief that a sane person would not believe. As such, the standard is essentially tautological and thus provides no meaningful guidance. The lack of a meaningful standard is exacerbated because the fact finder is trying to distinguish between an insane delusion (which could invalidate the will) and a conclusion that may be unreasonable, wrong, or mean-spirited (which has no effect on capacity). Trying to draw the line of sanity between the subtle gradations of un-reasonable conclusions without a meaningful standard is essentially impossible. This impossibility leads to the second problem. When a fact finder tries to determine if a belief is an insane delusion but has no meaningful standard for doing so, the fact finder will use personal biases to make the decision.
Of course, courts are frequently faced with a search for the testator’s intent. In interpreting wills, for example, courts attempt to effect the testator’s intent. In these other contexts, however, the issue is what the testator intended by the terms of her will. The text of the will is the touchstone. Indeed, in most states evidence of the testator’s intent is inadmissible if the will itself is unambiguous. In contrast, the inquiry in the monomania contest is why the testator made the disposition that she did. The terms of the will are largely irrelevant and may, in fact, even be ignored. The lack of the will as a guidepost makes the monomania inquiry into why the testator made the disposition she did substantially more arbitrary than inquiries into the meaning of the terms of the will.
Eliminating the doctrine of monomania. The situation should be remedied by a total abrogation of the law of monomania rather than by small changes to the standards. There is no need for a monomania doctrine. Under the general test for testamentary capacity, courts can handle the few cases in which a will is properly invalidated based on monomania.
Mere modifications to the monomania doctrine will not correct the problems. Any monomania doctrine must include a causation test, but any monomania causation test will lead to arbitrary and speculative results that fail to respect testamentary freedom. This conflict cannot be resolved in a way that allows the doctrine and testamentary freedom to survive.
Elimination of the doctrine leads to an obvious question: Would abrogation of the doctrine lead to the probate of wills that ought to be rejected for want of testamentary capacity? A large majority of the wills that courts reject under the doctrine would be admitted to probate. In many monomania cases, the court specifically notes that the testator has general testamentary capacity. However, in the most severe cases, the testator’s delusion renders her incapable of “knowing” the natural objects of her bounty. Thus, her will would be invalid under the general test for capacity.
Admittedly, even without an insane delusion doctrine, it will be difficult in some cases to make capacity determinations. Determinations of capacity are notoriously thorny. Eliminating the monomania doctrine cannot eliminate all uncertainty or make these decisions easy. Even these difficult cases, however, are better handled under the general test for testamentary capacity.
The point of eliminating the doctrine is to limit, to the extent possible, the fact finder bias and to focus the court on the right question: Did the testator have sufficient mental ability? Deciding these cases under the test for general capacity appears to do just that.
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- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 67 of Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal, Spring 2007 (42:1).
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Bradley E. S. Fogel is a professor of law at St. Louis University School of Law. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.