Let’s face it, as responsible adults there are certain things we simply have to do whether we like it or not. We have to work. We have to pay bills. We have to pay taxes. We have to plan and save for retirement. And at some point, we have to put our affairs in order. For most of us, that final obligation involves making a will – a legal document in which we specify how our assets should be distributed and, in some cases, who should look after our children after we die.
But what happens when someone makes a will and then suffers a catastrophic injury or a sudden illness, such as a stroke, that profoundly affects their ability to comprehend and communicate? Or what if the person who made the will is now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia? In other words, what happens if someone lacks the capacity – the legal term for intellectual ability – to make or change his or her will?
In such cases, Queensland law may allow for the creation of a ‘Statutory Will’. Also known as a ‘court-authorised will’ or a ‘court-made will’, this type of document is actually a Supreme Court order that permits “making, alteration or revocation of a will on behalf of a person who lacks the capacity to make, alter or revoke their own will”.
Technically, anyone can ask the court to issue this type of order on behalf of the testator (the person for whom the will must be made, changed or revoked). But there is a qualifier, which is that the court must agree that the person making the request has the right to do so.
In most instances, the person petitioning for a Statutory Will is related to the testator. However, courts have also established legal precedent for others, such as caregivers, powers of attorney, lawyers representing testators and – in some cases – close friends of testators, to make such requests.
Before you can actually apply for this type of will, you must ask permission to do so. Making this preliminary request allows the court to verify that you are acting in the testator’s best interests, and that you have legitimate reasons for seeking a Statutory Will. The initial part of this process is also designed to reduce or eliminate unnecessary and/or inappropriate applications.
For example, in a 2013 case heard by the Queensland Supreme Court, the issue at hand was whether the application for a Statutory Will had been made to safeguard any assets that may be passed on to the testator’s son, who was facing potential bankruptcy. After considering the arguments and evidence submitted, the Court determined the applicant’s reasons for pursuing changes through a Statutory Will were valid and allowed the application to go forward.
Once you have permission to file the ‘main application’, you may proceed. In general, this application should demonstrate that:
- the person is incapable of making a will and/or making necessary changes to a will; and
- the proposed will (or changes or revocation) is a truthful representation of what the person would want, as if he or she was capable of making a will and/or required changes to a will; and
- in light of all of the circumstances, it is logical for the court to authorise the will and make the orders.
Acceptable evidence that someone is no longer capable of making a will and/or making changes to an existing will may include written reports issued by their personal physician or specialist. The court will also accept medical opinions as to the potential for the person in question to gain or regain their essential abilities in the future. This is especially significant in cases where there does not seem to be an immediate need for a Statutory Will.
As a friend, family member or acquaintance, your testimony pertaining to the individual’s inability to make or change his or her will may also be considered. The court, however, will not regard it as highly as medical evidence.
Because the legal standard to determine intention in Queensland is whether or not the proposed will “is or may be one that would have been made by the proposed testator if he or she had testamentary capacity”, you should provide information that will help the court understand what the testator hoped to accomplish. This may include but is not limited to:
- an estimate of the size and nature of the estate;
- a draft of the proposed will;
- copies of any previous wills made and/or signed by the person in question;
- material that serves as proof of the testator’s wishes;
- verification of how the estate would be handled if the person in question died without a will;
- information about any relatives who are likely to make a family provision claim against the estate, and whether the proposed will would instigate or deter this type of claim; and
- information pertaining to anyone, including relatives and non-relatives, who can realistically expect to be included in the will.
The court may deny the main application (proposed will) if, for example, it concludes based on its review of all of the evidence that the person in question never planned on making a will at all.
That situation occurred in a 2017 case heard by the Queensland Supreme Court. In that matter, which involved a sizeable estate, the Court determined that it couldn’t approve the proposed will because the person in question didn’t really care whether he had a will – even when he had the ability to make one. Key to this determination was evidence that the man never followed through on making a will even though he had been earlier advised to do so, and even after he had consulted a solicitor about it in 2013.
If you are concerned about an ageing family member and his or her ability to make or update his or her will, don’t leave anything to chance. Speak with one of our qualified lawyers for a comprehensive assessment of the situation today.