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Banks vs. Goodfellow (1870): A Landmark Case in Testamentary Capacity

Updated: Feb 9

a last will and testament with a pen and judges hammer

Banks vs Goodfellow (1870)

In the realm of estate law, the case of Banks v. Goodfellow, decided in 1870 in the United Kingdom, stands as a seminal landmark. This legal battle not only laid the groundwork for determining testamentary capacity but also set a precedent that continues to influence decisions in similar cases to this day. In this blog, we will delve into the fascinating story and legal significance of Banks v. Goodfellow (1870).

The Case Background

Banks vs. Goodfellow (1870) revolved around the last will and testament of Mr. Samuel Goodfellow, a man of sound mind who wished to distribute his property according to his wishes. However, the will was challenged on the grounds of testamentary capacity, leading to a legal battle that would reshape the way courts assess an individual's mental capacity when creating a will.

The Legal Issue

The central question before the court was whether Mr. Goodfellow had the requisite mental capacity to create a valid will. The law at the time stated that to make a valid will, one must be of "sound mind, memory, and understanding." The challenge was to define and interpret these terms in a way that would be applicable to various testators with diverse mental states.

The Judgment

Chief Justice Cockburn, presiding over the case, delivered a landmark judgment that laid down a new legal test for testamentary capacity. He articulated the following principles:

  1. Understanding of Nature of Act: The testator must understand the nature of making a will and its effects, including the distribution of their property.

  2. Understanding and Recollection of Assets: They should have a clear understanding of the extent and value of their property and assets.

  3. Understanding of the Persons Affected: The testator should be aware of those who might have a claim to their property and should make decisions that are not affected by delusion.

  4. Freedom from Disorder of Mind: Lastly, they must be free from any disorder of the mind that might affect their judgment.

Impact and Legacy

Banks v. Goodfellow significantly impacted how courts assess testamentary capacity, providing a clear and practical framework that has been widely accepted and adopted in the legal world. It set a standard for evaluating the mental capacity of testators, ensuring that their wishes were protected from undue influence or impairment.

The case's enduring legacy can be seen in its influence on the legal frameworks of various countries. While the language used in modern statutes may differ, the core principles articulated by Chief Justice Cockburn continue to guide the determination of testamentary capacity in contemporary legal systems.


Banks v. Goodfellow (1870) remains a cornerstone in the field of estate law. It not only established a robust legal test for testamentary capacity but also emphasized the importance of protecting the intentions of testators while safeguarding against undue influence or mental incapacity. This landmark case continues to serve as a beacon of guidance for courts and legal professionals worldwide, ensuring that the sanctity of individuals' last wishes is upheld and respected for generations to come.

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