What Does Incapacitated Mean in Elder Law & Estate Planning?

Nov 17, 2023

What Does Incapacitated Mean in Elder Law & Estate Planning?

When working with an attorney to prepare for your future and address the challenges associated with aging, you will likely come across the term “incapacitated.”

Incapacitated Definition

Someone who is incapacitated cannot make personal decisions or understand legal documents. An incapacitated person requires a surrogate decision-maker, such as an agent under a health care power of attorney or a guardian.

When a person has the mental state to execute a valid legal document, such as a will or trust, this is known as having capacity. Capacity is the opposite of incapacity. If a court finds that a person signed a will while incapacitated, the court can invalidate the will.

(Note that while certain states use the term “incapacity,” others refer to this same concept as “incompentence.”)

Causes of Incapacity

You or your loved one could become incapacitated for a variety of reasons, including illnesses, injuries, and disabilities. A person with a severe developmental disability may be legally incapacitated for their entire adult life.

Someone who experiences a disability later in life may become incapacitated after the onset of an illness or injury. For example, an older adult who develops dementia may become incapacitated once the dementia progresses, such that the individual cannot understand a legal document or make personal decisions.

Incapacity in Elder Law

Elder law involves preparing for and addressing incapacity associated with injury, illness, disability, or aging. It is essential to understand the concept of incapacity applies to power of attorneys, wills and estate planning, and guardianship of an adult.

Power of Attorney

A power of attorney is a legal document that allows you to appoint someone else to make decisions for you.

  • A health care power of attorney allows you to select someone to make health care decisions for you. You can also give your agent instructions for the type of care you would like to receive, including end-of-life care.
  • With a power of attorney for property, you can give someone the authority to handle your financial affairs, such as paying your bills and managing your accounts.

Creating a valid power of attorney requires you to have mental capacity to understand the contents of the power of attorney. If you become incapacitated, a power of attorney allows you to preserve your autonomy, as you have selected a surrogate decision-maker to make decisions according to your wishes.

Depending on how you and your attorney structure your power of attorney, it could take effect only after you become incapacitated, once a physician determines that you cannot make decisions for yourself. However, many choose to allow trusted individuals authority as soon as they create a power of attorney, as this avoids having to wait for a physician’s determination of incapacity.

The court may appoint a guardian for those who become incapacitated without a power of attorney.

Guardianship of an Adult

Incapacity is a central concept in the guardianship of an adult. Guardianship of an adult is a court-supervised arrangement where one person assumes responsibility for an adult who is incapacitated.

The court must first determine that a person is incapacitated before permitting someone to become the legal guardian of an adult. In making this determination, the court relies on evidence from the individual’s physician.

According to the National Core Indicators Data Brief, those with significant autism, severe intellectual disability, or Down syndrome are more likely to have guardians.

Wills and Estate Planning

Making a will or any estate planning document that needs your signature, such as a trust or transfer on death deed, requires you to have capacity. You must understand what you are signing.

A will is only valid if you had the required mental capacity when you signed it. The court can invalidate your will if it finds that you were incapacitated when you signed it.

For people with cognitive difficulties impacting capacity, it is possible for capacity to fluctuate. A person with dementia may cycle through periods of lucidity and incapacity.

Consult With Your Estate Planner

As you age, it is a good idea to meet with your estate planner early and begin the process of developing a will and estate plan. Dementia, a disease that can affect capacity, impacts approximately 10 percent of adults 65 and older, according to Columbia University.

By working with your estate planner, you can help prevent others from challenging the validity of your will after you pass and ensure that you have a valid will in place. 

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