Mental Illness is Not Enough to Show Lack of Testamentary Capacity

September 30, 2019 | Kitt Tovar

On September 25, 2019, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a ruling regarding a will created by a man who suffered from schizophrenia. His sister claimed that he lacked the testamentary capacity to create a will and that it should be set aside. The court affirmed the district court’s decision and held that the decedent did have testamentary capacity to create a will and deed his portion of the farm to his distant relatives.


The decedent in this case is an Iowa man who began showing signs of mental illness after returning from serving in Korea in the 1950’s. He went back to live with his parents on their farm, but he was eventually admitted to a mental health facility where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He was treated with antipsychotic medications to treat his delusions.

From 1960 until 1984, the decedent’s mother served as his guardian to manage his affairs. She managed all of his affairs and provided him with a place to live. When the decedent’s mother developed health issues, his sister took over as conservator in 1984. She remained in that role until her brother’s death in 2016.

The decedent co-owned several tracts of farmland with his family. After breaking his arm, the decedent was admitted into a nursing home where he underwent several cognitive tests. One test indicated moderately advanced impairment. However, in another test, he received a “successful” score. Additional screenings showed his intelligence to be average and his long-term memory intact. While he did have short-term memory issues and a noted history of mental illness, the mental illness was controlled with medications. Nursing notes show that the decedent began to suffer from confusion in the beginning of 2011.

In September 2011, the decedent approached an attorney to execute a will. The decedent wrote that he wanted the land he owned to stay in the family. He chose his cousin’s family to inherit one of the tracts of land. The decedent did not mention a second tract of land in which he owned a partial interest. The attorney questioned the decedent about a residuary clause and naming an executor. The decedent named his cousin’s son who rented farmland from the decedent and his mother. He named his sister as the residuary beneficiary of his estate. The decedent never told the attorney about other assets, including two houses he owned.

After the decedent passed away, his sister petitioned the court to open an intestate estate, claiming her brother did not have the testamentary capacity to create a will. The lower court denied the petition.

Testamentary Capacity Presumption

The decedent’s sister argued that because her brother was under “permanent guardianship” he did not have the testamentary capacity to create a will. To show the decedent had testamentary capacity when he executed the will, he “must have known and understood: (1) The nature of the instrument being executed; (2) The nature and extent of his property; (3) The natural objects of his bounty; and (4) The disposition he desired to make under his last will and testament.” In re Estate of Lachmich, 541 N.W.2d 543, 545 (Iowa Ct. App. 1995). The decedent’s sister claimed these elements were not met for several reasons. She claimed that her brother never handled his own finances, he did not know the extent of his own property, he had documented delusions six months before the will was signed, he did not understand what the effect of his gift was, and the result of the will was “wholly unnatural.”

The court disagreed with the sister. The court found that while the decedent’s list contained misspellings and it missed some of his assets, this is the reason he met with an attorney. The witnesses and the attorney testified they believed the decedent to be of sound mind when he executed the will. If the decedent would have been suffering from delusions when he executed the will, it would have been apparent to the attorney and the law firm’s staff. Additionally, the 2011 will was very similar to a 2000 will he had executed.

There was no question the decedent struggled with mental-health issues. Nonetheless, he was able to live alone later in life, even after his nursing home visits for various injuries. One of his farm property interests went to a tenant and family member, and the other interest in farm property went to his brother and another family member. He left his sister and her daughter—two people who had helped care for him throughout his life—certain financial accounts and savings bonds. The court found that the decedent was a generous man who knew the natural objects of his affection. This all served as evidence that the decedent was mentally competent to execute a will at the time of its signing.