The Psychiatric Expert in Probate Proceedings
November 22, 2013
In probate proceedings involving the issue of testamentary capacity, parties frequently present testimony at trial from an expert psychiatrist. It is often the case that that psychiatrist never saw or treated the testator, and develops his or her expert opinion solely by reviewing various documents, including the testator’s medical records.
This expert psychiatric testimony is admissible, but courts have routinely and consistently held that it is afforded very little weight, if any, and is unreliable. This appears to be an “equal-opportunity” standard. In other words, this type of testimony is given little weight regardless of which party relies on it. For example, in Matter of Swain, 125 AD2d 574 (2d Dept 1986), the objectant’s expert psychiatrist testified that based solely on an examination of the medical records, which notably did not include the month when the will was executed, the testator was so impaired by a stroke that she could not have known the nature and extent of her assets or the natural objects of her bounty. The jury returned a verdict denying the will to probate on the grounds, inter alia, that the testator lacked testamentary capacity. The Second Department reversed, finding that the psychiatrist’s testimony was purely speculative, contradicted by the testimony of the testator’s treating physician, and was entitled to no weight. Thus, it concluded that the objectant failed to rebut evidence that the testator possessed testamentary capacity.
In Matter of Slade, 106 AD2d 914 (4th Dept 1984), however, the proponent of the will relied on a psychiatrist’s testimony that the testator possessed testamentary capacity. That witness had never examined the testator, nor discussed her condition with any treating physicians. He simply reviewed her medical records. At the close of the proponent’s case, the objectant’s moved for a directed verdict pursuant to CPLR § 4404, which the court granted on the issue of lack of testamentary capacity, because the proponent failed to meet his burden. Affirming that decision, the Fourth Department stated that “such testimony is the weakest and most unreliable kind of evidence,” and noted that it contradicted the facts—which must prevail.