A central issue driving almost every will or trust contest is whether the person signing the document knew what he was doing. In other words, did he have testamentary capacity? Any probate judge who has been on the job for more than 6 months will know the law governing these cases cold. What they need from us are the facts.

But which facts matter?

One way to answer that question is to work backwards from the legal definition for testamentary capacity. The problem with this approach is that legal definitions are by necessity general in nature, which means they are pretty useless when you’re trying to figure out which facts really matter to your case. 

Another approach is to come at the problem from the clinician’s viewpoint: what are the indicia of incapacity doctors and other therapists look for when diagnosing and treating adults with diminished capacity? In my opinion, this is the way to go; and the first place you’ll want to look for guidance on how to bridge the gap between legal theory and clinical reality is a handbook published jointly by the the American Bar Association and the American Psychological Association: Assessment of Older Adults with Diminished Capacity: A Handbook for Lawyers. Here’s an excerpt:

With the coming demographic avalanche of Boomers reaching their 60s and the over-80 population swelling, lawyers face a growing challenge: older clients with problems in decision-making capacity. While most older adults will not have impaired capacity, some will. Clear and relatively obvious dementias will impair capacity, and the prevalence of such dementias increases with age. But what about older adults with an early stage of dementia or with mild central nervous system damage? Such clients may have subtle decisional problems and questionable judgments troubling to a lawyer. This handbook offers a conceptual framework and practice tips for addressing problems of client capacity, in some cases with help from a clinician.

Some might argue that without training in mental disorders of aging and methods of formal capacity evaluation, lawyers should not be making determinations about capacity. Yet lawyers necessarily are faced with an assessment or at least a screening of capacity in a rising number of cases involving specific legal transactions and, in some instances, guardianship. Even the belief that “something about a client has changed” or a decision to refer a client for a formal professional capacity evaluation represents a preliminary assessment of capacity.

The 2002 revision of the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.14, concerning the client with diminished capacity, recognizes the bind in which this places the attorney, and provides some guidance. The rule triggers protective action when an attorney reasonably believes that a client has diminished capacity, that there is a potential for harm to the client, and that the client cannot act in his or her own interest. However, the critical question is: how does the lawyer reach a reasonable belief that the client has diminished capacity? This handbook seeks to respond.

The handbook represents a unique collaboration of lawyers and psychologists. While it is a joint project of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging and the APA, its applicability is broad. It can be of use to elder law attorneys, trusts and estates lawyers, family lawyers, and general practitioners. It introduces lawyers to a wide spectrum of mental health professionals, including, but extending beyond, licensed psychologists. Interdisciplinary partnerships between lawyers and clinicians promise more informed approaches for helping older clients meet their legal needs.

And for those “visual” learners out there, the handbook is full of easy-to-follow charts and checklists to help organize your thinking. Here’s one of my favorites: