May 13, 2023 Undue Influence
In New York, a person’s last will is valid if the person presenting it to the Surrogate’s Court can show that the following conditions were present at the time the testator signed it:
- The testator signed it freely and voluntarily,
- They were mentally competent to execute a will when they signed it (testamentary capacity)
- The signing procedure complied with all required legal formalities.[i]
In most cases, the court accepts the will as genuine and valid without any objections or challenges from heirs or other interested parties. But, there are several grounds on which the validity of a will can be and are challenged in New York.
When a will is challenged, one of the most frequently litigated grounds for the challenge is the claim that someone manipulated, bullied, or pressured the testator to benefit themselves more generously than others. This legal concept is called “undue influence.”
What Constitutes Undue Influence in New York Surrogate’s Court?
Historically, courts of law have given a person’s last will great deference. In New York, a party claiming undue influence in a will contest must prove that the person guilty of undue influence applied extreme pressure on the testator that they could not resist. In response to this “moral coercion,” it must be shown by a preponderance of evidence that the testator did something they would not normally do.
It is common for someone whose inheritance was reduced or eliminated by a decedent’s recently changed will to suspect that another person close to the testator used undue influence to obtain a larger share of the estate’s assets to the detriment of others. But, suspicion alone will not carry the day. The evidence must show that the bad actor took advantage of a vulnerable testator for financial gain.
Unless an objector can produce substantial evidence exposing that one of the elements needed to validate the will is missing, the Surrogate’s Court will accept the veracity of the will’s self-proving witness affidavit.
Who Can Bring an Undue Influence Claim?
To challenge the validity of a will on the grounds of undue influence in New York, the objecting party must have a “pecuniary interest,” a financial stake that is reduced by the last will being presented to the probate court.
To have standing to bring the undue influence court challenge, the person must be someone who would receive more of the assets as an heir-at-law if no will existed than they do under the terms of the will being probated. The challenger could also be a beneficiary who would have received more from an earlier will of the decedent than they will receive under the will being contested.
Creditors or other non-family members who have no pecuniary interest in the estate can only object to the appointment of a particular individual as executor of the estate, not to the validity of the will itself.
How Do You Prove Undue Influence?
Proving that someone benefited in the will because of undue influence requires more than mere speculation. New York law requires that the objecting party produce substantial evidence establishing each of the following elements:
- that the bad actor had the motive to influence the testator improperly, and
- that the bad actor had sufficient opportunity to exercise their influence, and
- that they bad actor did actually exercise undue influence.
New York courts have ruled that “’[without] evidence including specific times, dates, and places, “conclusory allegations and speculation’ are insufficient to raise an issue of fact as to acts of undue influence.’” [ii]
Experienced New York probate lawyers know that intrafamily disputes or resentments can occur in any case in which one family member or beneficiary receives an unequal or disproportionately large benefit in a decedent’s last will. But, evidence that the person receiving the largest share of the estate had the opportunity to influence the testator is not enough to prove that undue influence actually occurred.
This scenario commonly arises when the person who is the primary caretaker of the testator before their death is the major beneficiary under the most recent “last will.” An uneven distribution of the estate assets will not be invalidated on undue influence grounds merely because the person spent more time with the decedent or because the decedent was old or ill.
“’Influence arising from gratitude, affection or esteem is not ‘undue influence.’” [iii]
The NY Surrogate’s Court will assess the evidence by considering the following factors:
- Was the testator’s physical or mental health deteriorating?
- Were the bequests reasonable in light of the other case facts?
- Was the testator vulnerable or dependent upon the undue influencer?
- Was the testator isolated from their family by the alleged wrongdoer?
- Who arranged for the witnesses to the will? Did the testator know them?
- What did the influencer know about the existing will before the new will was drafted?
- Was the accused influencer in the room when the testator said they wanted to revise the will or when the revised will was executed?
- What was the duration of the relationship between the attorney who drafted the will and the testator or the alleged undue influencer?
- Did other heirs or beneficiaries know about the terms of the new will before the decedent’s death?
The Surrogate’s Court will not base its ruling on any single factor. Instead, the law requires the fact finder to balance the relative weight of all the evidence and conclude whether the party claiming undue influence led the testator to make revisions to their will that they would not have made but for the improper persistent persuasion of the alleged influencer.
Important Legal Presumptions
In dealing with issues of undue influence in the context of a will contest, New York law directs the court to recognize a number of rebuttable presumptions unless the party disadvantaged by the presumption can produce sufficient evidence to overcome it.
For example, one of the most important presumptions applied in NY Surrogate’s Court will contests is a presumption that the testator possessed the mental acuity necessary to execute a will. This means that the decedent is presumed to:
- generally understand the nature and consequences of executing their last will,
- be aware of the extent of their property and assets, and
- knew to whom they were gifting their estate assets and their relationship to those parties.
The presumption can be rebutted by specific evidence that substantially counters the presumed state of the testator’s competence.
On the other hand, when the alleged undue influencer is someone in a close confidential relationship with the testator — a lawyer, a doctor, a religious advisor, a guardian, or a conservator — the law presumes that the confidante benefited by undue influence. This presumption shifts the burden of proof to the person in the confidential relationship with the testator to produce persuasive evidence rebutting the presumption.
In such a case, a lawyer who benefited from a testator’s will could show that they were not present during the testator’s dictation of the will terms or when another lawyer drafted it. They may also show a long and close personal friendship or a history of generosity by the lawyer to the testator. If the lawyer can present sufficient evidence demonstrating that the will was created independent of any interference or influence by the lawyer, then the presumption will be successfully rebutted, and the bequest to the lawyer will be upheld.
Undue Influence Will Contests Need an Experienced New York Probate Lawyer
Undue influence is one of several possible grounds upon which the validity of a last will can be challenged by someone who distrusts the integrity of the will or is dissatisfied with the value of the assets they receive through the will in the probate court.
Other challenges may be based on evidence challenging the testator’s competence, an allegation of duress, fraud, or irregularities during the will’s execution process.
Only probate lawyers with extensive experience litigating these sensitive and technically complex issues should be trusted to represent your interests in these often emotional and traumatic disputes. Whether you are the proponent or an opponent of the will’s validity, the probate and estate attorneys at Ely J. Rosenzveig & Associates have been providing exceptionally knowledgeable legal counsel to probate litigants for many years.
[i] N.Y. Est. Powers & Trusts Law § 3-2.1
[ii] In re Hynes, 2023 N.Y. Slip Op. 30585 (N.Y. Surr. Ct. 2023) citing In re Murray, 49 A.D.3d 1003 (N.Y. App. Div. 2008)
[iii] In re Hynes, 2023 N.Y. Slip Op. 30585 (N.Y. Surr. Ct. 2023) citing Matter of Wharton, 270 App. Div. 670 (N.Y. App. Div. 1946)