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A battle of wills: When mental competence affects dying wishes

Posted on 05-26-16 in Advocacy, Mental Health

A battle of wills: When mental competence affects dying wishes

There’s more to the situation than just a successful man teetering on a deathbed: The future of an empire and the crux of the debate on mental competence in one’s final days are also afoot.

Sumner M. Redstone will be 93 on Friday, May, 27, 2016. He’s a long-standing media mogul, who is currently experiencing declining cognition, fed through a tube and whose utterances are interpreted through a nurse or speech therapist.

As happens all too often, last-minute changes have been made to Redstone’s will, and his family and financial partners are fighting; in his case, it’s over a media dynasty valued at $40 billion.

His tumult raises the subjects of competence, one’s dying wishes and delineated wills. Resolving the issue will mean navigating a gray area at the intersection of medicine, psychiatry and the law.

Chronic brain disease can affect the will

It’s hard enough to align what is said and what is meant while sober, or in the younger years. Compound that by increasing mental and physical limitations as one ages, or cognitive damages from years of drug abuse or mental disorder and it can be overwhelming to reconcile real intent with a changing will.

“Determining undue influence is even trickier and in the end is a legal issue, to be decided on the basis of facts before the court, rather than a clinical one,” says Kenneth I. Shulman, a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto and a dementia expert.

Atlanta-based financial adviser Scott Beaudin says clients may begin with a simple “I love you will” and often don’t specifically “come to a decision until faced with their own mortality.” But he says last testaments can be clarified with a few tweaks.

However, because science has proven addiction is a brain disease, and many mental health disorders, if left untreated, can override reality with cognition impairments, severe paranoia and rash mood swings, a last will for someone with a history of addiction or mental disarray can be problematic.

Consider someone like Ozzy Osbourne, who, although was finally drug-free for a significant amount of time, admittedly has extreme problems with memory, speech, impulsivity and relapse.

Mental competency examinations

People with neurogenitive diseases or a history of mental disorder – including substance abuse – can be proactive and take measures to protect their true will being articulated in their written will.

“A medical or mental competency examination can prove invaluable,” according to Boston lawyer Michael Puzo.

Brown University defines mental competency insofar as the law is concerned and acknowledges that “mental impairment resulting from either acute voluntary intoxication or chronic substance abuse may result in some degree of diminished capacity.”

It also affirms someone who’s struggled with competency can legitimize decisions or documents conducted in what is called “lucid intervals.”

“Many of the lucid interval cases in which the will was upheld involved severe chronic alcohol or drug abusers who had prolonged episodes of lucidity between their episodes of uncontrolled substance abuse.”

If you, or a loved one is wavering in sound mind, settling on a last will only after a positive mental competency evaluation is wise. In Redstone’s case, the courts must see through the battle of wills and decipher not a deathbed testament, rather a mental acuity judgment.

The Sovereign Health Group is a nationwide behavioral health provider. We specialize in cultivating, educating and advocating for our patients holistic recovery and full return to a life of wellness; free of the snares of mental disorder and addiction. Call our 24/7 helpline to learn about our premier modalities and alternative therapies.

About the author

Sovereign Health Group staff writer Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at