Issues concerning a will-maker’s “capacity” usually relate to dementia and the like. Sometimes though, they traverse broader aberrations of the mind such as a will-maker’s delusion, fantasy and superstition.
Jan Grzeczny was born in Poland in 1920 and migrated to Australia in 1949.
He married Maria in 1951. They had a daughter, Teresa – born in 1952 – the same year in which Jan adopted Maria’s son Richard from a former relationship as his son.
Teresa and Richard became estranged from both Jan and Maria in the 1970s and thereafter had minimal contact. Teresa became somewhat closer to them from 2015.
Jan died in December 2018, at the age of 97. He was until then living independently in a Perth suburb and was still driving and managing his own finances.
Richard and Teresa were not named as beneficiaries in any of the wills he had made in 1981, 2014, 2017 or 2018.
In the 1981 will, Maria was appointed the executor and sole residuary beneficiary. Maria had though predeceased Jan which thereby granting to Richard and Teresa standing under the rules of intestacy to claim the entire estate if the 1981 will was propounded.
To prove their entitlement in intestacy, they had to clear off all the subsequent wills including that of 2018 where Jan had appointed Joachim and Maria‑Luise Diedler – whom he had known since 1989 – as residuary beneficiaries.
In September 2019 Teresa applied to the Western Australian Supreme Court for a Grant of Letters of Administration of the 1981 will arguing that the later wills were all invalid due to delusions she claimed had plagued her father.
The Public Trustee of WA, who had assisted Jan in the preparation of the 2018 will was named as executor but renounced its appointment.
Joachim and Marie-Luise themselves applied for a grant which led to a contest before Justice Natalie Whitby in a July 2023 trial.
The well known prerequisites for establishing legal capacity include a comprehension on the part of the will-maker of all those persons who have a reasonable claim to receive part of their estate.
He or she must also be absent of any disorder of the mind or delusion that “poisons their affections” or influences the contents of the will.
Justice Whitby was satisfied that Jan comprehended his children’s rightful claims but that for various reasons he chose not to provide for them.
She further concluded that Jan was indeed affected by delusions that had poisoned his mind in arriving at those decisions.
Against the contentions advanced by Joachim and Marie-Luise, the evidence clearly demonstrated he thought Teresa was a “witch” who was trying to poison him and had flown through his window to steal from him.
As to Richard, Jan harbored a delusion that he had tried to poison his coffee in 2014.
Her honour ruled those delusions influenced the will-maker to not provide for his children in his 2018 will and that in the absence of those delusions, they would likely have been included as beneficiaries.
The evidence “overwhelmingly supports a conclusion that the deceased did not have testamentary capacity when he made the 2018 will,” Justice Whitby concluded. “The 2018 will is not valid.”
Her honour went on to say that because the evidence supported a finding that Jan was suffering from the delusions from at least 2012, the validity of the 2014 and 2017 wills was also called into question.
It was in her view inappropriate to make any final determination of their validity until all of the beneficiaries under those wills had been given an opportunity to be heard.
A further contest may ensue if any beneficiary decides to argue that either of the 2014 or 2017 wills are valid.