Estate of Harrell: Jury finds testator had capacity

Estate of Harrell: Jury finds testator had capacity

In Estate of Harrell, the testator’s daughter challenged her father’s capacity to execute a will.  The jury found he had capacity and the Houston Court of Appeals (1st. Dist.) affirmed that decision.

The father executed the challenged will in 2012.  The will specifically identified the daughter, but disinherited her.  Instead, he gave his property generally to the sons of a close friend and to his brother.  This was contrary to a will he had executed in 1999.

The father died in 2016.  Daughter contested the 2012 will, citing her father’s alleged alcoholism and a hoarding disorder. She also cited the fact that his own name was misspelled in the will.

The proponents of the will presented testimony from the drafting attorney and two of the attorney’s employees, who served as witnesses to the will. Predictably, they testified it appeared he had capacity.  But they did not know him well and could not recall details of conversations with him or the will execution. However, they testified they would not have let him sign the will if it appeared he did not have capacity.  The testator’s brother acknowledged he had a drinking issue, but denied he was an alcoholic.   He also disagreed with the hoarding allegation. Instead, he was simply a messy bachelor.

The neighbor friend essentially testified the same.  She testified that she drove him to the lawyer’s office on the day he signed the will.  According to her, he was behaving normally that day and was not drunk.

Daughter countered that her father was an alcoholic who almost always had a drink in his hand.  She further testified she had seen medical records showing her father had dementia.  But it does not appear medical records containing a dementia diagnosis were actually in evidence.

A psychologist hired by the daughter performed a “post-mortem” psychological evaluation of the father.  The psychologist diagnosed the father with  alcohol use disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder exhibited with hoarding.  He testified that these disorders presented “significant evidence of diminished or lack of testamentary capacity at the time he executed the Will in 2012.”

The Grimes County jury found the father had capacity.  Daughter appealed, arguing the evidence was insufficient to establish her father had capacity to execute the 2012 will.  She argued primarily the following:

  • the attorney that drafted the will and the witnesses to her father’s signing could not remember the event with any particularity;
  • that she was the only party to present an expert witness on her father’s mental capacity. She argues that the jury was required to credit her expert and discredit the lay testimony on the other side

The Court of Appeals rejected these arguments.  The court noted that there was conflicting evidence of capacity, including the extent of alcoholism and the hoarding disorder. The court also noted that there was little evidence provided to establish how any disorders the father had would have affected his testamentary capacity. The  jury was not given details on how these disorders affected his ability to know the nature and extent of his property, know his next of kin, understand how to execute his will, or understand the effect of making his will.

This is another example of the reluctance of a court of appeals to overturn a jury’s determination of testamentary capacity. My guess if the jury had found the father lacked capacity, the court of appeals would have upheld that decision as well.

If you are considering contesting a will or are facing a will contest, it is very important to consult an experienced Texas will contest lawyer very early in the process.

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