In general terms, an incompetent individual lacks the qualifications or ability to do something successfully. In regards to the law, however, the term incompetent refers to a person’s inability to understand legal proceedings or transactions, or lack of metal capacity to understand the consequences of his actions.

Incompetence can be caused by a variety of factors including mental illness, trauma, stroke, or mental disability. If a person committing a crime is found to be mentally incompetent, there is a possibility he will be excluded from criminal prosecution, and cannot testify in court. To explore this concept, consider the following incompetent definition.

Definition of Incompetent


  1. Not having the mental capacity or necessary skills needed to do something.
  2. Being unable, or legally unqualified to be held responsible for certain acts.


Late 16th century Latin incompetent

What is Mentally Incompetent

In the U.S. legal system, an individual’s competence is related to his mental ability to make certain decisions, to understand a legal transaction or proceeding in which he is involved, and to be responsible for his actions and decisions. While some individuals may be determined to be mentally incompetent to make any legal decisions, or to be held responsible for his actions, the issue of competence for most people is decision or situation specific. This means that, for any number of reasons, a person, who is normally able to make competent decisions, does not have the mental capacity to make a certain medical decision, or to competently enter into a legal contract.

In such situations, a court may appoint a legal guardian to make certain types of decisions for the incompetent individual. Such a guardianship may be temporary, or may be a permanent need, depending on the circumstances which led to a determination of mental incompetence.

Incompetence in Criminal Matters

In the U.S., the Supreme Court has ruled that a mentally incompetent person has the right to avoid prosecution according to the due process clause of the Constitution. If a court determines that an accused individual is not capable of understanding the legal proceedings, or is not capable of helping his own defense, he will likely be ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986)

In 1974, Alvin Bernard Ford was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. While on death row in a Florida prison, Ford’s mental status declined, as he began exhibiting symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Among other wild delusions, Ford declared himself to be Pope John Paul III, and personally appointed nine new justices to the state’s supreme court. A panel of psychiatrists examined Ford, and determined that, although he suffered from a host of mental disorders, he was capable of understanding the effect the death penalty would have on him. The governor then signed Ford’s death warrant in 1984.

Ford sued the Florida Department of Corrections. Eventually the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was ruled that Florida’s procedures for determining whether individuals are incompetent were lacking. Further, the Court ruled that executing the mentally insane was cruel and inhumane, and that such a decision could not be left solely to the administrative branch of government, but must involve a proper judicial hearing.

As a result of Ford v. Wainwright, a new process for determining competency was instituted. In the event a court-appointed psychologist finds a defendant or inmate to be mentally incompetent, and unable to completely understand the legal proceeding, the court can order the individual be treated, even while held in a secure facility, until he is competent enough to stand trial, or to understand his execution.

Declaring a Person Mentally Incompetent

In order to participate in any legal proceeding, a person must be capable of understanding the process, and able to make sound decisions involving his interests. In all cases, individuals are automatically considered to be competent, unless a reason to believe otherwise presents itself. In legal proceedings, specific steps must be followed to have an individual declared mentally incompetent. This begins with the filing of a motion for a competency hearing, after which a psychological evaluation must be performed, and a hearing be held.

Steps to Having Someone Declared Mentally Incompetent

A family member or close friend of someone who has become unable to make competent decisions, or to handle his own personal and financial affairs can request that the court declare him incompetent, and even appoint a guardian. The steps to having someone declared mentally incompetent include:

  1. File a Petition for Adjudication of Incompetence with the probate court in the county where the incompetent individual lives. This form includes an application to be appointed as guardian.
  2. Determine Whether Adult Protective Services Must be Notified. In many jurisdictions, Adult Protective Services conducts investigations on all requests for incompetency, even if the person making the request is not asking to be named guardian.
  3. Have a Psychological Evaluation Performed and submit the report with the application to the court. If the individual refuses to cooperate with an evaluation, request that the court order the evaluation.
  4. Determine Whether the Guardian Requires a Bond. In some jurisdictions, the court requires an individual requesting to be appointed as guardian post a bond to protect the incompetent individual’s assets and other interests.

Competency Hearing in a Criminal Matter

When a competency hearing is held in a criminal matter, the defendant’s attorney often seeks to use the information to mitigate, or lessen, the defendant’s sentence, or to make plausible an insanity plea. In this case, a motion for competency hearing must be submitted before the sentencing hearing takes place. Such a hearing is only granted if there “is a reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent.”

If the defendant is deemed incompetent, he is hospitalized for a short time, usually three to four months, to determine whether the individual’s mental competence can be restored. If, at the end of the hospitalization period, the defendant is still incompetent, he is held for additional treatment. If the competence has been restored, court proceedings begin.

Dusky v United States

Milton Dusky was 33 when he was charged with assisting in the kidnapping and rape of a minor girl. Dusky suffered from schizophrenia, but was found competent to stand trial, in which he was found guilty and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Dusky’s attorney appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that, in order to be competent to stand trial, an individual must have the mental capacity to consult with his attorney, and a reasonable degree of rational understanding, as well as the ability to understand the facts of the case against him. The Court ruled that the brief examination of Dusky’s mental status was not sufficient to determine mental competency, and ordered the sentencing to be retried. Following the second sentencing trial, Dusky’s sentence was reduced to 20 years.

Riggins v Nevada

In 1992, David Riggins met a man in his Nevada apartment, after which the man was found dead from stab wounds. Riggins was arrested and charged with the murder and robbery of the man. Riggins complained to the jail psychiatrist that he heard voices and could not sleep, telling the psychiatrist that he had taken Mellaril, an antipsychotic medication, in the past. The psychiatrist prescribed the medication at increasing doses, according to the defendant’s request, until he was taking 800 mg of Mellaril per day, which is considered to be a very high dose.

Riggins was then evaluated and found competent to stand trial, but he asked that his medication be stopped, so that he could present an insanity defense. Riggins’ plan was for the jury to see his mental status in an unmedicated state. Riggins’ request to discontinue the medications was denied. Riggins was tried, found guilty of murder and robbery, and sentenced to death.

Riggins appealed the matter to the Nevada Supreme court, stating that by forcing him to take the antipsychotic medication, the state denied him the ability to assist in his own defense, giving the jury a misleading impression of his mental state, attitude, and demeanor. The state Supreme Court disagreed, and upheld the trial court’s decision.

The case then went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that forcing Riggins to take medication during his trial violated his Constitutional rights under both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court also determined that, if Riggins asked that the medication be stopped, the state was obligated to do so, unless it could prove that the medication was necessary for Riggins’ safety, or the safety of others. The trial court’s decision was reversed, and the matter remanded for retrial.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
  • JurisdictionThe legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Mitigate – To lessen the intensity, force, or harshness; to moderate; to make less severe.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.