Cite as A157962
Filed March 18, 2021, First District, Div. Three
By Golnaz Yazdchi
Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP
Headnote: Capacity – Mental Health Disorder – Delusions
Summary: Where a testator’s belief, even if irrational or unfounded, is drawn from facts which are shown to exist, the testator was not acting under an insane delusion
Kay Pearson executed a trust on February 24, 2016 naming St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as the sole beneficiary, and disinheriting her estranged son and two granddaughters, Eyford and Johnson. Pearson was generally close with her granddaughters until the final years of her life. Before executing the trust Pearson made statements to friends that she was disinheriting her granddaughters for reasons that included that (1) they were stealing from her, (2) trying to kill her, (3) had shredded her papers against her will, and (4) had closed her bank accounts. All of those factual claims were demonstrably false, and they in fact had shredded her papers and closed her accounts with her consent. Following Pearson’s death, the granddaughters contested the trust on the basis that Pearson had a mental disorder with symptoms including delusions or hallucinations that impacted her testamentary capacity. The parties presented conflicting factual evidence about why Pearson ultimately disinherited them despite naming them as her sole beneficiaries under a prior will. The parties also presented conflicting expert evidence of Pearson’s mental state and condition. Granddaughters urged that their grandmother lacked capacity because she had multiple false beliefs about them, which constituted delusions. Ultimately, the trial court found that at the time Pearson executed her trust she did not have a mental health disorder with symptoms including delusions or hallucinations that caused her to disinherit granddaughters.
Held: Affirmed. A person is not competent to make a will if at the time of making the will, she has a “mental health disorder with symptoms including delusions or hallucinations.” Although Pearson had several demonstrably false beliefs about her granddaughters, and those false beliefs motivated her in disinheriting them, those beliefs were tethered to facts, and therefore not delusions. Three experts testified that Pearson did not have a mental disorder, or delusional disorder. Pearson’s treating physicians testified that she did not have dementia, and that they did not notice signs of cognitive impairment. Even appellant’s expert testified that the second best explanation as to why Pearson changed her estate plan was that it was possible that she was upset that her granddaughters “swept” into her life after her husband’s death, and she did not want to give her money to them. Substantial evidence—a standard of review that does not permit a reweighing of the evidence—supported the court’s determination.