When you hear the word “incompetent,” you might associate it with a criminal law defendant; the issue of competency, however, is just as relevant in a Pennsylvania family law case. Parties often testify on their own behalf in family law cases, and no matter what field of law, one may not testify if they are deemed incompetent.
Though the Superior and Supreme Courts of Pennsylvania have almost exclusively evaluated the issues relating to the mental competency in the context of criminal law, the case law concerning the issue of competence is well settled. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Rosche v. McCoy has stated that where an individual will be called to testify, “Competency is the rule and incompetency the exception.” The court went on to state that a witness is presumed to be competent, and “the burden to show incompetency lies upon the party who asserts it.”
In examining a witness’ competence a court needs to inquire as to whether the witness; (1) has the capacity to observe or perceive the occurrence with a substantial degree of accuracy, (2) has the ability to remember the event which was observed or perceived, (3) has the ability to understand the questions and to communicate intelligent answers about the occurrence, and (4) has a consciousness of the duty to speak the truth.
In regards to these four requirements, ones answers need not be ‘perfect,’ but rather must demonstrate he is capable of recalling those events to which he will testify, has no issues understanding and answering those questions which he is asked and is presumed to be testifying truthfully after having been administered the oath.
It is important to note that mental illness does not preclude a finding that a witness is competent. The court stated in Commonwealth v. Ware: “In general, the testimony of any person, regardless of his mental condition, is competent evidence unless it contributes nothing… incompetency does not follow from the fact that the witness is insane or mentally ill.”