As the country’s population ages, a growing number of people will, unfortunately, suffer from diminished capacity, which can arise from conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “This is occurring more as businessmen and women work into their later years, and they become more susceptible to these conditions that affect their ability to make business decisions,” says Suzanne Fanning, an attorney with Garan Lucow Miller PC and co-chair of the Washtenaw County Bar Association Probate Section.
If someone with diminished capacity to make decisions enters into a transaction, that decision may be later subject to challenge in court.
“If it is established that the person did not have the requisite legal capacity to enter into the contract, the court may set the contract aside, to the detriment of the other party that entered into the contract,” she says.
Smart Business spoke with Fanning about how to take the legal precautions necessary to protect your business when concerns arise about another party’s possible diminished capacity.
What is diminished capacity, and who does it affect?
Diminished capacity is essentially an impairment of daily cognitive functioning, which can impact memory, reasoning, language and insights, all of which are skills critical to good business decision making. While the majority of businesspeople will not suffer from diminished capacity, as the population ages, there is a greater likelihood that it will become an issue.
Diminished capacity can also impact younger businesspeople who have been injured or who suffer from serious illness. This could be temporary, such as when medical treatments impair mental capacity, or permanent, such as when a person is in a serious accident.
What are the signs of diminished capacity?
There are no standard set of criteria, but there are red flags to consider if you are engaged in business transactions with someone who appears to have diminished capacity. These can include memory loss or forgetfulness, problems with the ability to communicate, loss of mental acuity, calculation problems, diminished comprehension, disorientation, inflexibility during negotiations, susceptibility to manipulation or even fraud by third parties.
Are there different standards of capacity for different business transactions?
Yes. Legal capacity has different legal definitions depending on the transaction and the applicable case law and statutes in the state in which you are operating. In Michigan, for example, the legal standard for the capacity to contract is whether the person in question possesses sufficient mental capacity to reasonably understand the nature and effect of the contract.
The more complicated the contract, the higher the level of understanding that is necessary to have the legal capacity to make that contract. In a real estate transaction, such as signing a deed, the standard is whether a person has sufficient mental capacity to understand the business in which he or she is engaged, to know and understand the extent of the value of the property and how to dispose of it.
It is important that businesspeople be aware that a transaction can be set aside by a court if the other party is later found to have lacked the requisite legal capacity at the time the transaction was undertaken. Therefore, it is important to take appropriate steps to protect yourself and your business when concerns arise that the other party may lack the legal capacity to enter into a transaction.
How can you protect your business in the event that your business partner is showing signs of diminished capacity?
One way to address this concern is to create a durable power of attorney, in which you and your partner name each other as the agent to transact business in the event the other suffers from a diminished capacity. You can also name a trusted employee or adviser to this position.
Having a durable power of attorney will also prevent a spouse or family member of the incapacitated person from gaining the authority to transact business matters on that person’s behalf. This is especially important when those family members have little or no experience in business.
What can be done if a client or third party to a transaction appears to have diminished capacity?
One option is to ask for a capacity evaluation by a doctor to ensure that the person has the capacity to enter into that particular transaction. Of course, this topic must be approached with great care. Another option is to make the transaction contingent on a court guardianship or conservatorship in which the court will grant authority to a third party to act on the person’s behalf.
For example, while a person with diminished capacity might not be capable of signing a deed necessary to a business deal, his or her court-appointed guardian or conservator could be granted authority to sign the deed on behalf of that person and proceed with the transaction.
Clearly, such a scenario can be extremely difficult. It may be a client with whom you have worked over many years. It can be difficult to extricate yourself from the relationship, but it may be necessary to protect yourself legally because these transactions can be set aside. It may be a matter of approaching the client’s partner or spouse, explaining that you are having concerns and bringing in a third party to make sure the transaction is protected.
Suzanne Fanning is an attorney with Garan Lucow Miller PC and concentrates her practice in probate and trust litigation and planning. She is co-chair of the Washtenaw County Bar Association Probate Section. Reach her at (734) 930-5600 or email@example.com.
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