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Understanding Legal Capacity in New York

New York elder law attorneys work with local families on a range of issues affecting seniors. Most notable among these is assistance arranging long-term care for seniors with physical and mental challenges. This frequently requires use of the Medicaid system, which itself comes with “spend down” requirements and other complications.

One general legal issue that comes up again and again in these cases is that of “capacity.” One must have legal capacity to enter into legal agreements and otherwise make decisions for their own well-being. But how do you know if a senior loved one has capacity? What if they have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia? Is there a black line rule on when they can or cannot sign anything on their own behalf?

Legal Capacity in New York
While the law strives for precision, in certain situations there is a lot “gray area.” The rules about mental capacity include some of that fuzziness. Many court battles are fought on a near daily basis centered on this very question, and courts in New York are charged with analyzing the specifics of each case to make reasonable determinations about capacity.

For example, in the case of testamentary capacity (the capacity to make a Will), the highest judicial body in the state, the New York Court of Appeals, has explained that three different factors must be considered:

1) Whether the individual signing knew the nature and consequence of the actions 2) Whether the individual knew the nature and extent of assets at issue 3) Whether the individual knew who would be considered the “natural objects of her bounty and her relations with them”

Importantly, the above three requirements are technically only applicable to signing a Will. The standards of legal capacity for other issues that may affect a senior–like entering into a contract–could be different. The standards may be higher for these contractual arrangements, depending on the specific situation.

At the end of the day, if capacity or competency is ever challenged in courts, many different sources will be consulted to provided a holistic assessment, including family members, friends, social workers, attorneys, and medical professionals. Lawyers experienced in these matters are often able to take steps when the legal decisions are made to guard against potential challenges to capacity down the road, increasing the chance that complications will be avoided
For help understanding the legal ramifications of a senior who is facing mental decline, please feel free to reach out to our NY elder law attorneys today.

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