What does undue influence mean when contesting a will?

Undue influence under New York law explained.

It is common for beneficiaries to dislike the way in which an estate is distributed. Maybe the person who created the will promised assets he or she did not really have, which isn't discovered until the will is read. Maybe the testator orally promised multiple people the same asset. More often than not, it is because one family member received more assets than others.

Still, believing a will is unfair is not a reason for a probate judge to invalidate the provisions of an estate plan.

New York probate judges will only render a will or portions of a will invalid under certain legal grounds. One of the most commonly known, but widely misunderstood, is undue influence. The basic idea is simple enough: there must be affirmative evidence of facts which show, or from which can be inferred, an intervention by a beneficiary and the subversion of the testator's will. While undue influence has been portrayed often in television and courtroom dramas, the technical and legal aspects of undue influence are not well-known.

Undue influence defined under New York law

Generally, the law allows a testator the right to leave assets to whatever person or entity he or she chooses. However, if there is evidence that the will or trust left behind does not reflect the true intention of the testator, then a probate judge may refuse to enforce the will. Keep in mind what undue influence is not: it is not a beneficiary simply asking for more money from the testator, or even making a case that one beneficiary needs it more than the other. Rather, undue influence encompasses actions that "destroy free agency" and "constrain the free will" of the testator.

Proving undue influence in court

By its very nature, proving undue influence can be difficult. There may be direct evidence showing that the beneficiary participated in the execution of the will, did or said something to influence the testator, or was generally in the presence of the testator and did or said something to him. If the contestant's claim of undue influence rests on such direct evidence only, and if such direct evidence is not established, his case will fail. Direct evidence, however, is often unavailable since undue influence, by its nature, involves actions which are subtle and difficult to perceive.

For this reason, the contestant may also, by circumstantial evidence, show all the facts and circumstances, surrounding the testator, the nature of the will, his family relations, the condition of his health and mind, his dependency upon and subjection to the control of the person supposed to have wielded the influences, the opportunity and disposition of the person to wield it, and the acts and declarations of such person. This kind of evidence must be of a substantial nature in order to result in denial of probate.

The burden of establishing that there was undue influence rests upon the objectant to prove its case by a "preponderance of the evidence" (i.e. it was more likely than not) and does not shift; but, where there was a confidential relationship between the decedent and the beneficiary/drafter of the will, the mere fact of the bequest permitted an inference of undue influence and the drafter then has the burden of offering an explanation, alternative to his influence, for the contested will.

Exploring your legal options

If you wish to contest a will on the basis of undue influence, or if another beneficiary is contesting the will, you need experienced representation by an attorney familiar with New York probate administration and will contests. At Polizzotto & Polizzotto, our attorneys have extensive experience in all aspects of New York probate law. Contact our team to discuss your legal options and protect your rights.

Keywords: Will contest, undue influence, invalidating a will, probate, Polizzotto & Polizzotto.