Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Competency of Wife to Serve as Administrator of Her Husband’s Estate

Margaret Decharinte, 93,  was ruled to be competent to act as administrator of the estate of her late husband, Frank Decharinte. A hearing was conducted in 2018 hearing on objections made by her step-daughter, Joanne Bartolone. Bartolone’s attorney reported that she had interviewed Decharinte and that Decharinte “doesn’t know what year it is,” “thinks it’s 2014,” “doesn’t know what season it is,” “didn’t know what day of the week it is,” “doesn’t handle her own personal finances,” and “doesn’t know what her bank is.”

When Decharinte was questioned by the DuPage County Circuit Court judge, she gave some befuddled answers but insisted that she could handle the job with help from her daughter, Laurie. The judge ruled, “She’s competent enough to handle this with the assistance that she has.”

That decision was appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District, which affirmed, explaining that the test for determining whether someone is competent to serve as an administrator under the Illinois Probate Act is the same as the standard for testamentary capacity: “the ability to know and remember the natural objects of his or her bounty, to understand the character of his or her property and to plan a disposition of that property.”

The appellate court panel found that the trial judge’s ruling was not against the manifest weight of the evidence under this standard. Although “Joanne’s counsel made certain representations regarding her ‘interview with Margaret,” these statements didn’t count because the attorney “was not placed under oath.”

Under the common law, the general rule is that the capacity to make a will is sufficient to make a person mentally competent to serve as an executor.  Clark v. Patterson, 114 Ill. App. 312 (1904); Griffin v. Irwin, 21 So. 2d 668 (Ala. 1945). Under older formulations of the rule, “idiots and lunatics” were “practically the only ones disqualified” by the common law. Griffin, 21 So. at 670; See also Clark, 114 Ill. App. at 318; In re Leland’s Will, 114 N.E. 854 (N.Y. 1916) (noting the “common law disability of imbeciles and lunatics”).

The Illinois Supreme Court, in the appeal from the Clark case, agreed that the common law requires no greater competence of an executor than of a testator.  Clark v. Patterson, 214 Ill. 533 (1905).

Sections 9-1 and 6-13(a) of the Illinois Probate Act, like the equivalent provision concerning executors in the era of Clark, did not add a mental competency requirement beyond those of the common law.

The law presumes that adults are mentally competent and places the burden of proving incompetence on the party claiming incompetence; incompetence “cannot be inferred merely from old age, physical illness or defective memory.” In re Estate of Gruskee, 179 IL App (3d) 675 (1989). The modern standard for testamentary capacity requires that a testator have the ability to know and remember the natural objects of his or her bounty, to understand the character of his or her property and to plan a disposition of that property. See, e.g., In re Estate of Elias, 408 Ill. App.3d 301 (2011).

The appeals panel applying the standards held that the trial court’s finding that Decharinte was mentally competent to serve was not against the manifest weight of the evidence. To be sure, some of the answers that she gave the court were vague and non-responsive. The court added that Decharinte also testified that she paid her own bills, working with her daughters when she needed assistance.

For these reasons stated, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the court’s appointment of Decharinte as administrator of her husband’s decedent’s estate.

Decharinte v. Bartolone, 2019 IL App (2d) 190060-U (Sept. 16, 2019).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling probate litigation, trust litigation, guardianship minor estates and competency hearings for individuals, families and loved ones for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Bellwood, Bensenville, Orland Park, Lake Zurich, Zion, Calumet City, South Holland, Oak Lawn, Oak Forest, Forest Park, Crestwood, Alsip, Worth, Blue Island, Palos Heights, Barrington, Wilmette, Chicago (Bucktown, Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, West Rogers Park, Albany Park, Uptown, Wrigleyville, Hyde Park, Bridgeport), Romeoville, Joliet, Geneva, St. Charles, Wheaton, South Elgin and Des Plaines, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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