Lack of Capacity to Make A Will In North Carolina

One of the grounds upon which a North Carolina will may be successfully contested is that the testator (person making the will) lacked the mental capacity to do so. In North Carolina, a person has sufficient capacity to make a will if he  (1) comprehends the natural objects of his bounty; (2) understands the kind, nature, and extent of his property; (3) knows the manner in which he desires his act to take effect; and (4) realizes the effect his act will have upon his estate. In re Womack, 53 N.C.App. 221, 280 S.E.2d 494, disc. rev. denied, 304 N.C. 391, 285 S.E.2d 837 (1981); see generally 13 Strong’s N.C. Index 3d, Wills, § 22; Wiggins, Wills and Administration of Estates in North Carolina, § 43 (2d Ed.1983). The law presumes that a person who made a will possessed capacity to do so, and those who allege otherwise have the burden of proving by the preponderance or greater weight of the evidence that he lacked such capacity. In re York, 231 N.C. 70, 55 S.E.2d 791 (1949).

Proving a lack of capacity is often difficult and typically requires medical records of the testator. In order to have standing to bring a successful case, a plaintiff must have been named a beneficiary under a prior will revoked by the contested will or have been an heir at law of the testator prior to the will’s execution. Contact North Carolina probate litigation attorney Evan Lohr at (919)348-9211 or evan@lohrnc.com to discuss your potential case.

The Dead Man’s Statute – NC Rule of Evidence 601(c)

Estate litigation poses significant challenges to parties and practitioners, not the least of which is that the person whose wishes should dictate the distribution of the property at issue in a dispute is dead. In many cases, parties seek to introduce purported statements of the deceased as evidence to support their claims. Rule 601(c) of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence applies in these circumstances and serves to render a witness incompetent “when it appears (1) that such a witness is a party, or interested in the event, (2) that his testimony relates to … a communication with the deceased person, (3) that the action is against the personal representative of the deceased or a person deriving title or interest from, through or under the deceased, and (4) that the witness is testifying in his own behalf or interest.” In re Will of Lamparter, 348 N.C. 45, 51, 497 S.E.2d 692, 695 (1998)(quoting Godwin v. Wachovia Bank & Trust Co., 259 N.C. 520, 528, 131 S.E.2d 456, 462 (1963)). The text of the rule is as follows: “Upon the trial of an action, or the hearing upon the merits of a special proceeding, a party or a person interested in the event . . . shall not be examined as a witness in his or her own behalf . . . concerning any oral communication between the witness and the deceased person . . . .” N.C.G.S. § 8C-1, Rule 601(c).

Both propounders (the person submitting the will for probate) and caveators (the person challenging the validity of the will) may be considered interested persons. In re Will of Hester, 84 N.C. App. 585, 595, rev’d on other grounds, 320 N.C. 738 (1987). However, the named executor is not. Id. at 595–96. The effect of the rule is to prohibit testimony by interested persons regarding oral communications between themselves and the decedent about the will, the decedent’s intent to make a new will or to change the beneficiaries of his will, or about the desired disposition of his property.

In conducting discovery and examining witnesses, practitioners asserting the protection of the rule must be careful to avoid waiving it. In a long line of cases, including Wilkie v. Wilkie, 58 N.C.App. 624, 294 S.E.2d 230, disc. rev. denied, 306 N.C. 752, 295 S.E.2d 764 (1982), the appellate courts have held that when a party elicits incompetent evidence under the Dead Man’s Statute, the party then waives any protection afforded by the Statute.  Id. at 627, 294 S.E.2d at 231.   In that case, the plaintiff answered interrogatories implicating the Dead Man’s Statute and there were no objections made by either party to the interrogatories themselves or the answers given.  Id. at 626, 294 S.E.2d at 231. Counsel may avoid a situation such as the one in Wilkie by not asking questions that elicit evidence of oral communications between the deceased and the opposing party and by promptly objecting to, and moving to strike, answers given that concern such communications.

Evan Lohr is a trust and estate attorney with Lohr and Lohr PLLC. He can be reached at (919)348-9211 and evan@lohrnc.com.