The term incapacity (or incompetency) has many different legal meanings. In legal proceedings, the term usually refers to the person’s ability to comprehend the nature and consequences of the proceedings. The term can also be used to describe the person’s qualification to enter into a contract or legal agreement. Wills traditionally include the language that the testator, or person making the will, is of “sound mind.” The purpose of this language is to establish the testator’s competency, which can be challenged. Also, in the estate planning arena, the term is used to define the person’s ability to manage their own affairs and make certain important decisions on their own.
There are many different life situations that can lead to incapacity, including both medical and mental health conditions. Some incapacity is only temporary. A child under the age of majority is usually considered incompetent to make their own decisions or enter into legal contracts, as well.
There are some medical conditions that result in a declaration of incapacity, such as dementia, psychosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. Age and senility can also diminish a person’s capacity to care for themselves. Someone who is diagnosed as being mentally ill, senile, or suffering from some other condition that prevents them from managing their own affairs can be declared mentally incompetent and a guardian will be appointed to handle the person’s property and personal affairs.
The law requires a person to be “legally competent” before that person can enter into a contract, sign a will, power of attorney or other legal document. This can include not only consideration of the individual’s mental condition, but also their age. For example, contract law requires a person to have reached the “age of majority,” which depends on the laws of that state. In Arkansas, the age of majority is eighteen (18). Based on public policy, the immature should be protected from liability for contracts that he or she is too inexperienced to understand and negotiate. Legal capacity plays a role in estate planning since the person wanting to execute an estate planning instrument must have the legal capacity to execute that instrument.
There are some conditions that only render a person incapacitated temporarily. When the condition that has made them incapacitated has passed or is resolved, their capacity can return. For example, if a person is found to have been intoxicated at the time a contract was signed, that contract is deemed voidable. The incapacity of minors is a temporary condition as well.
Incapacity can also refer to someone who is unconscious or in a coma, which renders them unable to respond to questions or make decisions. The temporary period of incapacity ends when the person recovers from the medical condition that rendered them incapacitated.
How is incapacity defined in Arkansas?
Under Arkansas law, an incapacitated person is defined as follows:
a person who is impaired by reason of a disability such as a mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness, chronic use of drugs, or chronic intoxication, to the extent of lacking sufficient understanding or capacity to make or communicate decisions to meet the essential requirements for his or her health or safety or to mange his or her estate.
It is important to remember that a physical disability alone is never sufficient to find incapacity. Individuals with a physical disabilities can make their own decisions as long as they have full mental capacity. If you have any questions about incapacity or incapacity planning, please contact our office.