Written by Kristen L. Fescoe, MS, and Dr. Nicole M. Vienna

May 19, 2023

Legal Mental Capacity and Decision-Making

When it comes to an individual’s ability to make a legal decision, there are a number of important codes and statutes that protect people if they are not fit to make those important decisions. California Probate Code Section 810-813 Part 17 speaks to a person’s legal decision-making capacity. In this article, we will review this code and its implications for legal decision-making capacity as well as other legal capacities.

What does the legal term ‘Capacity’ mean?

Within the legal system, the term capacity refers to the criteria that must exist in order for an individual to have the facilities to make a legal decision. In order for a person to have the capacity to make a decision, they must possess the functional awareness to make a decision with an understanding of the implications, benefits, and risks.

The functional abilities necessary to make a legal decision include what a person knows, what they understand, and what they are capable of doing. For example, in order for a person to agree to testify in their defense, they must understand their charges and the implication of their testimony. If they are unaware of what might happen when they testify, they might put themselves at risk.

What does decision-making capacity mean?

If we look at California Probate Code 812, it explains what capacities a person must possess in order to make a legal decision on their own behalf. It says that a person must have an understanding of all of the implications, rights, duties, and responsibilities that might result from their decision. They must understand the potential outcomes of their decision. This also includes an understanding of the potential risks or benefits of the decision as well as alternative decisions.

How is decision-making capacity determined?

How legal capacity is determined varies according to the situation. If the decision is medical, a doctor or other hospital staff would be responsible for ensuring that the patient is capable of making a sound medical decision. Within the legal system, an individual’s lawyer would work most closely with the person and have a sense of their ability to make a legal decision.

If it becomes apparent that the individual does not understand, is having difficulties that limit their understanding, or suffers from a mental deficit decisional – then their decisional capacity will be questioned. If a person’s capacity is limited, they may not be fit to make a legal decision, enter into a contract, become married, make medical decisions, and execute wills or trusts.

It is important to note that a mental illness is not enough to question a person’s decision-making capacity. There are many mental illnesses that do not compromise an individual’s understanding of their situation.

What happens if someone is deemed incapable of making a legal decision?

If a person is deemed incapable of making a legal decision, it may be a temporary situation. Their incapacity may change depending upon the circumstances of their condition. In the case of a temporary lack of capacity, there may be a passage of time when the individual can become stable. If the situation is longer-term or constant, they may be assigned a family member, social worker, or another person to aid in making these important decisions.

A final word on legal capacity

California Probate Code Section 810-813 Part 17 ensures that each individual is protected in their ability to make sound decisions. Ensuring that a person is capable of making these important decisions protects them from harm or future difficulty.

When to seek emergency help?

Immediately call 911 or your local emergency number if you or someone you know is thinking about self-harm, suicide, or homicide or is in psychiatric distress. If you are with someone thinking about hurting themselves, stay with the person to keep them safe until emergency services arrive at your location.

  • 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (Call or Text 988)
  • Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255, Press 1 to talk)
  • Text Hello to 741741

Use the following telephone number for non-emergency services in LA County (the entry point for mental health services with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health).

  • LACDMH ACCESS LINE: 800-854-7771

If you are interested in a psychological evaluation by one of our psychologists at Vienna Psychological Group, book your free 30-minute consultation here.

 To learn more about mental health and forensic psychology, check out our blog library here and our podcast, The Forensic Psychologist Podcast, hosted by Dr. Vienna on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

 Let’s stay in touch! Connect with us on FBIG, or LinkedIn.

This blog aims to answer general questions and assist readers in better understanding decision-making capacity and other legal capacities. This blog is not intended to provide medical, psychiatric, or legal advice.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email