Elder couple looking over their letter of competency

Maybe it’s the son-in-law you’ve never really liked, let alone trusted, who wields undue influence over your daughter. Or the ex-spouse who continues to make trouble seven years after your divorce. Or the son whose irresponsibility and self-destructive behavior forced you to disinherit him.

What is a Letter of Competency?

If you have reason to believe that an estranged family member might challenge your will, trust, powers of attorney or other planning documents, you may want to consider obtaining a letter of competency. Why? Many such challenges are based upon claims of incompetency—that is, the legal documents are invalid because their creator was of unsound mind. A letter of competency will help dispel notions that your documents were created while you lacked the mental capacity to make sound financial and legal decisions.

How to Obtain a Letter of Competency?

A letter of competency is typically written by a primary care physician who is familiar with any changes in a patient’s baseline mental and physical health. In some cases, obtaining this letter from a doctor who specializes in cognition or mental health, such as a neurologist or psychiatrist, might be a good idea.

What Should be Included in the Letter of Competency?

A letter of competency should be printed on the doctor’s letterhead and include the following basic information:

  • The patient’s name and date of birth
  • The date on which the doctor-patient relationship was first established
  • The doctor’s statement affirming the patient’s ability to make independent decisions regarding finances, legal matters, and healthcare
  • Relevant medical diagnoses
  • Each relevant medical issue’s date of diagnosis
  • The doctor’s contact information

While the above information is typically included in a basic statement of mental capacity, it is a good idea to work with an attorney to determine if other facts or additional supporting evidence should also be included.

How to Store the Letter of Competency?

You’ll want to store the letter of competency, along with your will, powers of attorney, trust, and other legal documents, in a safe place. It is wise to have your doctor keep a copy in your medical file as well. Of course, your attorney should also have all of your documents, including the letter of competency, readily available.

It may seem “crazy” to obtain proof of your mental capacity when creating or updating legal documents. However, it’s better to be safe than sorry. The time and energy required to see a physician and get him or her to draft a letter of competency is minimal compared to the legal fees, stress, and family turmoil involved in lawsuits over the validity of legal documents.

Mr. Amoruso concentrates his practice on Elder Law, Comprehensive Estate Planning, Asset Preservation, Estate Administration and Guardianship.