Understanding “Competency” under Ohio Law

Posted in Probate Litigation. Tuesday, Sep 08th, 2015

One common dispute that arises in probate litigation is over whether a given person is mentally competent. Mental competence matters for purposes of appointing a guardian because a person must be adjudged incompetent before the court will appoint someone else to oversee their affairs. Competence also matters for purposes of making a will because someone must be mentally able to dispose of their property to make a valid will. However, it is important to note that even though the term competence is used in both instances, the legal tests that the courts apply in both instances are different. This means that someone could be incompetent for the purposes of having a guardian appointed, but still retain enough of their mental faculties to draft a valid will.

Competency for Guardianship Purposes

Ohio law permits courts to appoint guardians to manage the affairs of minors or people who are mentally incompetent. The role of the guardian is to look after the finances, property, and perhaps general well-being of the person over whom they are appointed guardian. This means that the definition of competency under Ohio law for the purposes of guardianship focuses mainly on whether the person has the ability to manage their own affairs without outside help. Ohio law defines incompetence as being “incapable of taking proper care of the person’s self or property, or failing to provide for the person’s family,” as a result of “a mental or physical illness or disability, or mental retardation, or as a result of chronic substance abuse.”

Competency for Will Validity

Determining whether someone is mentally competent to draft a valid will requires a different test that is generally considered to be less stringent. Unlike the test above, which focuses on being able to actively manage affairs in an ongoing way, the test for will validity is about whether the person has sufficient understanding of their finances and relationships to appropriately create a plan for how they want to dispose of their assets after they pass on.

Ohio law has a four-part test for determining whether someone had the mental capacity to create a valid will. First, the person must understand that they are making a will that will dispose of their property. Second, they must be able to comprehend the extent of their finances and assets. Third, they must be able to “identify the natural objects of their bounty,” which means they have to be able to identify the people who would have a claim on their assets. Fourth, they must know their family members and understand their relationship. If a person can meet these factors, then they are of sound mind to create a will.

Comparing the Standards

While each standard is suited to the particular type of competency needed in the situation, it is important to note that the standard for will validity is usually regarded as easier to satisfy. This means that people who have had a guardian appointed to manage their finances are not automatically disqualified from making a valid will.

Mental competency is an important issue in guardianship proceedings and will contests. If you are currently involved in a probate dispute and want to learn more about your rights, contact a Columbus probate litigation attorney at the Law Office of Mike Gertner today.