What Is Mental Incompetence?

Mental incompetence is a legal term used to describe a condition where a person is unable to make everyday decisions because of mental illness or disability. A person is considered mentally incompetent if the illness or disability impacts decision making capacity on a constant or sporadic basis.

A person can be deemed mentally incompetent in either a civil or criminal proceeding. A person is considered to be mentally incompetent in a civil proceeding if she has a mental illness such as schizophrenia or dementia. Individuals who are mentally retarded are also considered to be mentally incompetent. The court appoints guardians for individuals who are declared mentally incompetent in a civil proceeding to make financial and legal decisions on their behalf.

When mental incompetence is used in a criminal proceeding, the defendant must undergo psychiatric evaluation. The doctor who conducts the evaluation presents the findings to the court. If there are grounds for a plea of mental incompetence, the defendant is hospitalized.

At the end of the hospitalization, the doctor reports to the court whether the defendant is competent, or needs more time to regain competency. Once the defendant is deemed competent, she can stand trial. If a doctor thinks that a defendant will not regain competency, then she can remain hospitalized after being declared incompetent in a civil proceeding.