PROBATE CORNER

By: David M. Garten, Esq.

ARTICLE: I May Be Insane, But I’m Not Incapacitated!

An “insane delusion” is a spontaneous conception and acceptance as a fact, of that which has no real existence except in imagination. The conception must be persistently adhered to against all evidence and reason [Miami Rescue Mission, Inc. vs. Roberts, 943 So. 2d 274 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2006)]. It is a belief in things impossible, or a belief in things possible, but so improbable under the surrounding circumstances, that no person of sound mind could give them credence [Johnson v. Johnson, 105 Md. 81, 65 A. 918 (Md. App. 1907)].

As a general rule, an insane delusion” is not a general defect of the mind; it is an insanity directed to something specific such as a particular person or thing. A testator can be laboring under the influence of an insane delusion while otherwise acting and appearing competent [Benjamin v. Woodring, 268 Md. 593, 601, 303 A.2d 779 (1973)]. Therefore, instead of considering the testator’s mental abilities – as is done in most capacity decisions – the insane delusion doctrine focuses on why the testator believed what he believed and why he did what he did.

There are two prerequisites to vacating the testator’s actions on the basis of an insane delusion: First, the contestant must show that the testator suffered from an insane delusion; and second, the contestant must show that the testator’s actions were the product of that insane delusion (i.e., cause & effect). Proving that a testator suffered from an insane delusion, however, may be more difficult than one might expect. How do you distinguish between a testator suffering from an insane delusion and a testator who has merely reached a wrong, mean-spirited, or “stupid” conclusion? The majority of the cases supporting an insane delusion share the following common features: (a) negative false beliefs about the character of a particular close relative of the testator that were not connected to any reality or true experience; (b) an illogical thought process or generalization not linked to the negative false belief to some true fact about the subject of the delusion; (c) no evidence that the subject of the delusion had done whatever it was the testator was convinced he or she had done; (d) no evidence that the subject of the delusion had done anything negative toward the testator (or anyone else) that could account, even irrationally, for the testator’s wrath; (e) the delusions do not suggest mistake, unreasonableness, confusion, stubbornness, poor judgment, denial, or willfulness; and (f) the delusions can only could be explained by a deranged mind.

In addition, proving that the testator’s actions were the product of that insane delusion may also be problematic. For example, suppose that the testator is suffering from an insane delusion that the moon is made of green cheese. It is unlikely that this insane delusion would invalidate the testator’s will because the delusion likely has nothing to do with the testator’s estate plan. To prove the will is a product of the insane delusion, the contestant must show that the insane delusion caused the testator to dispose of his property in a way that he would not have otherwise done. Thus, the fact-finder must determine what the (now deceased) testator would have done if he were not suffering from an insane delusion.

What is not an insane delusion? Any belief which arises from reasoning based upon a known premise, however imperfect the process may be or however illogical the conclusion reached, is not an insane delusion. What is significant is not the truth or falsity of the belief, but rather whether such belief arose from reasoning from a known premise [Estate of Edwards, 433 So. 2d 1349 (Fla. 5th DCA 1983)]. One cannot be said to act under an insane delusion if his condition of mind results from a belief or inference, however irrational or unfounded, drawn from facts which are shown to exist. Thus, if there is any evidence, however slight or inconclusive, which might have a tendency to create a belief, such belief is not a delusion. Under this rule, even if one’s beliefs are inaccurate, a mistaken belief does not justify overturning the testator’s actions where there is any evidence supporting the belief [Ho v. Bronken (Estate of Shartsis), 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 6931, 2016 WL 5092712 (Cal. App. 2016)].

EXAMPLES – INSANE DELUSION FOUND

In Estate of Hodtum, 267 So. 2d 686 (Fla. 2nd DCA 1972), decedent executed a will wherein he gave the residue of his estate to a Masonic lodge. Five months later, decedent went to the office of his attorney who drafted the prior will and requested him to draft a new will deleting the Masonic lodge as a beneficiary because he had been kicked out or was black-balled by the Masons. In response, his attorney advised him that he had received a letter a few days earlier from the Masonic lodge which contained a resolution setting up a fund for the decedent’s anticipated bequest and that there was no way in the world he could have been kicked out. Decedent refused to accept this information whereupon his attorney called the lodge in the presence of the decedent and his stockbroker. This telephone call revealed that the decedent was not and never had been expelled from the Masons, had never had any charges leveled against him and that he was a member in good standing. Decedent, even upon this evidence, persisted in his belief that he had been kicked out of the Masons. His attorney, after ascertaining that the decedent had no basis upon which to believe that he had been kicked out of the Masons, refused to draft a new will. Decedent subsequently retained a new attorney who drafted a will deleting the Masonic lodge as a beneficiary. The lower court revoked the admission of the subsequent will to probate on grounds that decedent was suffering from an insane delusion. The order was affirmed on appeal because there was no evidence to establish any basis for decedent’s belief that his membership in the Lodge had been revoked.

In Miami Rescue Mission, Inc. v. Roberts, 943 So. 2d 274 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2006), decedent executed a will while hospitalized and died the following day. The effect of decedent’s will was to disinherit her longtime caregiver and friend, Roberts, because she believed that Roberts had abandoned her, “let her dog die,” and was stealing from her. In reality, Roberts visited the decedent each and every day and that each visit began with Roberts reassuring decedent that her dog was doing fine. The court found that this reality, when contrasted with the decedent’s continued belief that Roberts was not visiting her and not caring for her dog, coupled with her misidentification of Roberts, was sufficiently unreasonable to permit the trial court to determine that the decedent was suffering from an insane delusion.

EXAMPLES – INSANE DELUSION NOT FOUND

In Estate of Edwards, 433 So. 2d 1349 (Fla. 5th DCA 1983), the decedent executed a will one week prior to his death wherein he devised his entire estate to a casual employee of five years. Soon after the will was admitted to probate, decedent’s relatives filed a petition for revocation of probate on the basis of insane delusion arising from his mistrust of his own family and his suspicion of people in general, including customers at his place of business. The lower court denied the petition and the appellate court affirmed. The court found that there was a basis for the testator’s actions and his mistrust of his family, and that the relative’s own psychiatrist testified that there was a basis for the testator’s feelings, beliefs and fears against his family. The evidence also indicated that the testator had always been suspicious and secretive and always protective of his property. The trial court found that decedent “was naturally and justifiably concerned about shoplifting in the operation of his business due to the nature of that business and the physical layout of his store.” Decedent was upset when some of his family members entered his property without his permission during one of his hospital stays, and on one occasion had ordered one of his brothers off his property. He suspected that an earlier break-in and robbery at his property had been engineered by another brother and he mentioned these incidents to the lawyer who drew the will in question. The trial court found other instances of differences between decedent and his siblings, including correspondence requesting that they stay off his property. The court stated: “Whether we agree that his feelings towards his brothers and sisters were justified is not the point at issue. What is determinative is the fact that those feelings arose from reasoning or a known premise. They had real existence and did not exist only in decedent’s imagination.”

In Dougherty v. Rubenstein, 172 Md. App. 269; 914 A.2d 184 (Md. App. 2007), decedent’s son, Jay, sued to vacate his father’s will on the basis of the insane delusion that he had stolen his father’s money. The lower court denied the petition. The appellate court, in affirming the lower court, reasoned: “In this case, the delusion entered James’s mind when he was a resident, not by choice, of the Cantler Home, which for him was a terrible experience that he blamed completely upon Jay. As James saw it, he was confined to a home similar to a nursing home, without privacy or access to a telephone, in the company of residents who were enfeebled by old age, and with no hope of being let out. The witnesses who testified about having visited James in the Cantler Home confirmed that the accommodations were insufficient for him and that he felt like he had been imprisoned — and that he was of the view that Jay had failed him by forcing him in and by not coming to his aid to get out. From the time he arrived at the Cantler Home forward, James was convinced that Jay had betrayed him by not letting him go home instead. James’s delusion that Jay also had betrayed him by stealing his money was a generalization, albeit not a logical one, drawn from his true belief that Jay had been the decision-maker who had kept him in the Cantler Home until his sisters rescued him. In essence, this is what the trial judge found from the evidence: that James’s delusion was an outgrowth of a stubborn conviction that Jay had “done something wrong” by “imprisoning” him at the Cantler Home. Although it was false, and it prompted James to disinherit Jay, it was not an inexplicable delusion that only could have come into being as the product of an insane mind.”