Testamentary Capacity & Schizophrenia

April 4, 2013 Hull & Hull LLP Capacity Tags: 0 Comments

The decision of Hoffman v. Heinrichs, from the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba, considers the issue of the weight given to schizophrenia in determining whether a testator has capacity.

On October 20, 1980, at the age of 60, the testator executed a Will leaving her $1.1 million estate to her twin brother, or if he pre-deceased, then to her twin brother’s son.  The testator’s nephew challenged the Will, in part, on the basis that the testator lacked capacity.  If the Will was revoked, the estate would have been distributed amongst  80 other nephews, nieces, grand-nephews, and grand-nieces, including the objecting nephew.

It was well known that for most of the testator’s adult life, she suffered from schizophrenia.  Although not entirely certain when the testator was first diagnosed, she spent multiple stints at a Mental Health Centre in 1970, and 1979, before moving to a personal care home in 1979, where she was treated with medication for the rest of her life.

In terms of evidence, very little was adduced.  In the form of medical evidence, the testator’s psychiatrist had written a letter to the testator’s niece in December 1979, describing the testator’s condition as stable.  As well, there was testimony from nurses who worked at the nursing home.  Non-medical evidence included testimony from various nephews and nieces, as well as the drafting solicitor.  The drafting solicitor had no concerns about the testator’s capacity.

Although not determinative here, I refer to our prior blog which considers the strength given to medical evidence when not directed at the issue of testamentary capacity.

In reaching its decision, the Court stated that since the testator suffered from schizophrenia, it amounted to a suspicious circumstance, therefore placing the onus on the propounder.  Additionally, as the Will was executed in October of 1980, the Court weighted evidence in and around this time as more telling than the testator’s behaviour several years before the Will was executed.

Acknowledging that in the seminal case of Banks v. Goodfellow (1870), L.R. 5 Q.B. 549 (Eng. Q.B.), a will was valid in spite of the fact that the testator had a history of mental illness, had been previously in a mental asylum, and at the time of the execution, continued to suffer from delusions, Greenberg J. held that the testator did not lack testamentary capacity.  Therefore, the validity of the Will was upheld.

This case provides an important reminder that even if a testator suffers from schizophrenia at the time of preparing a testamentary document, it does not necessarily follow that the testator lacks capacity.

Noah Weisberg

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