Woman signing will

On May 19, 1860, Hamilton Washington, a man of many prejudices and superstitions, executed a will that left his entire estate to his sister, Mary Beazley. 

On June 6, 1868, Hamilton executed a new will that left “pretty much all of his estate” to Wm. B. Denson, who “was no relative of the testator [Hamilton].” Then Hamilton died, leaving such a mess that it went up to the Texas Supreme Court, which issued an 1870 opinion that is still cited today. 

Why all the hoopla? Because the Denson opinion contains a fascinating discussion on insane delusions and the capacity to execute a will.

The Texas Supreme Court Decides the Will is Odd, But Valid

The issue was the instruction given by the trial court to the jury. It included the following: “These delusions, which are the ordinary accompaniments, are evidence of insanity and are extravagant or impossible things which do not exist at all, except in the imagination of the insane person, but which he cannot be persuaded or convinced do not exist. The true test of the absence or presence of insanity is the absence or presence of these delusions.”

The Supreme Court quickly dismissed that instruction as “learned sophistry.” It pointed out that under that test John Wesley, Martin Luther, Joan of Arc, Joseph Addison Napoleon Bonaparte, and “hundreds more of the greatest and soundest minds which ever existed on earth, must be declared insane” because their beliefs would, in 1870, be declared delusions. Given the trial court’s definition, “there would be very few who could maintain absolute sanity.”

The Court had a good point. You probably engage in some superstitious behavior:  tossing a pinch of spilled table salt over your shoulder, avoiding walking under a ladder, not opening an umbrella inside, knocking on wood. At the very least these are “peculiar opinions.” But are they also delusions that should invalidate your will? You will be relieved to know that the Supreme Court, in overturning the trial court, gave a resounding no.

Eccentricity in Wills and Trusts

Morgan v. Boys

One of the cases the Court cited gives a wonderful insight into its reasoning. “The most remarkable case of mere eccentricity upon record, if it was such, is that of Morgan v. Boys … where the will was upheld on the ground that there was no satisfactory proof of actual unsoundness of mind. The testator devised his property to a stranger, thus wholly disinheriting the heir or next of kin, and directed that his executors should cause some parts of his bowels to be converted into fiddle strings, that others should be sublimed into smelling salts, and that the remainder of his body should be vitrified into lenses for optical purposes.”

The testator further explained that he gave those instructions because he wanted his body to be “converted into purposes useful to mankind.” The Judge in Morgan decided that the testator’s will exhibited nothing more than eccentric judgment.


A Case from England 

In another case cited by the Court, “The testator was a native of England, but had lived in the east, and was familiar with eastern habits and superstitions, and professed his belief in the Mahometan religion. He died in England, leaving a will which, after various legacies, gave the residue to the poor of Constantinople, and also towards erecting a cenotaph inscribed with his name and bearing a light continually burning therein.” The will was valid.

The upshot? Your delusions can be insane and lead to some pretty weird language in your will, and that is just fine. Sometimes.  

Hammerle Finley Law Firm Can Help Craft Your Will 

Our experienced attorneys can ensure your will won’t be left to interpretation. To get help with all your estate planning needs, contact the experts at Hammerle Finley Law Firm today. 

Virginia Hammerle is an accredited estate planner and represents clients in estate planning, probate, guardianship, and contested litigation. She may be reached at legaltalktexas@hammerle.com. This blog contains general information only and does not constitute legal advice.