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Being Of Sound Mind

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The Goldfish | 11:58 UK time, Thursday, 19 July 2007

The son of a millionaire businessman is contesting the will in which his father left his £8.3 million estate to the Conservative party, on the grounds that the chap, Branislav Kostic, had a mental illness and lacked the mental capacity to make a valid will.

In the press, much has been made of the millionaire's notion that Margaret Thatcher was going to save the world from satanic forces. As comical as that might seem, beliefs which hold a living person in divine esteem are rather commonplace and not necessarily an indication of psychiatric illness. The Yaohnanen tribe, for example, who worship Prince Philip as a god, are not believed to be unwell.

Even the experience of fully-fledged psychiatric delusions is not necessarily any legal bar to controlling one's finances and writing a valid will; one doesn't actually have to be of sound mind in every sense, so long as one is able to understand the will and its implications. Unfortunately, there is a real question as to whether Kostic's illness poisoned his affection towards his son, thus influencing the will. This is also the point which makes the whole case a rather tragic one, whatever the outcome.

Considering such matters in hindsight is rather tricky. If you are not believed to be of testamentary capacity whilst you are living, then concerned parties can ask a Judge to create a 'statuary will' on your behalf. Similarly, there are steps others can take if they feel you are not able to handle your finances. This apparently didn't happen in Mr Kostic's case and the will appears to have been in place for twenty years before he died.

The Conservative Party, who received several large donations from Kostic when he was still alive, have also been criticised for accepting this money when there was reason to doubt his capacity. This immediately puts me in mind of friends who have accrued enormous debt during phases of impulsive shopping, or signed up for expensive and unwanted financial products in a state of confusion.

Such mistakes can be difficult to guard against, much less undo, but at what point is a person no longer responsible for their finances? To what extent should major decisions be discounted if we have been unwell at the time of making them? And when does an eccentric belief become regarded as a problematic delusion?

The mental health charity Mind have an on-line booklet entitled Managing Your Finances, which some readers might find useful.

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