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New York Undue Influence

In order for a last will and testament to be valid in New York it must have been executed according to the requirements of New York law. There are several ways that a beneficiary, heir, or other interested party can challenge the validity of a will. One way is based on evidence that there was undue influence or manipulation over the testator that resulted in the testator making a will that he (or she) would not have made but for that pressure or influence. It is a type of manipulation with a goal of illegally gaining ownership of estate property of a vulnerable testator. If you believe that a will of a loved one was subject to undue influence, it is important that you immediately contact a New York undue influence lawyer who will listen to your concerns and help you take steps to ensure that an invalid will is not probated.

Definition of undue influence

In order to prove that there was undue influence the objectant, who is the person challenging the validity of the will, must prove that the someone manipulated the testator into writing a particular will that he would not have otherwise written. The court has described undue influence as follows: "the influence exercised [must have] amounted to a moral coercion, which restrained independent action and destroyed free agency, or which, by importunity could not be resisted, constrained the victim to do that which was against his free will and desire, but which he was unable to refuse or too weak to resist." Matter of Zirinsky, 43 AD3d 946, 947-948

Signs of undue influence

As a New York undue influence lawyer will explain, a will contest based on undue influence is typically difficult to prove since the person who was purportedly manipulated is deceased. However, there are factors that the court will consider as evidence.

  • Presence of the alleged manipulator at the execution of the will
  • Presence of the alleged manipulator on those occasions when the testator expressed a desire to make a will
  • The alleged manipulator recommended the attorney who ended up writing the will and the attorney had a prior relationship with the alleged manipulator.
  • Knowledge of the contents of the will by the alleged manipulator prior to execution
  • Giving of instructions on preparation of the will by the alleged manipulator to the attorney who wrote the will
  • Securing of witnesses to the will by the alleged manipulator, particularly if the witnesses are not people who the testator knew
  • Safekeeping of the will by the alleged manipulator subsequent to execution
  • The alleged manipulator being critical of family members and isolating the testator from his (or her) family. The court will consider how many if any family members had access to the testator and knew about the new will.
  • Deteriorating mental or physical health.
  • Vulnerable testator who is dependent upon the alleged manipulator
  • The reasonableness of the will. For example, if the bequest objectively make little sense, then the Surrogate’s Court is more likely to find undue influence or some other type of impropriety. While changing the testamentary plan does not necessarily mean that undue influence was present, a will that does not make sense based on the relationships between the testator and prior beneficiaries would tend to show that undue influence may have been involved.
  • Testator acted in secret. In other words no one by the alleged manipulator, the attorney, and the witnesses were aware of the new will. The beneficiaries of the prior will were not aware that the testator had executed a new will.

While no single factor is absolute proof of undue influence, the presence of one or more of these factors will tend to increase the likelihood of illegal manipulation.

Examples

As a New York undue influence lawyer will explain, undue influence involves more than a person asking for a testamentary gift and involves more than a person saying negative things to the testator about other members of the family. A valid claim of undue influence must involve a person who has some sort of control over a vulnerable testator’s situation such as the testator’s care, finances, or other aspects of the testator’s living situation, and that he (or she) actually used that position to influence the testator into making a will favorable to him. For example, in Matter of Paulin, a 2018 case in the Duchess County Surrogate’s Court, there was a will contest based on an allegation of undue influence. However, the Surrogate’s Court dismissed the objection. Although there was evidence that the person accused of undue influence was in a position to manipulate the testator and had a motive to do so, the objectant failed to provide any direct evidence that the alleged manipulator actually did influence the conduct of the testator into making a will favorable to him. In other words, the Surrogate’s Court stated that the mere presence of a motive to manipulate and opportunity to manipulate are not sufficient to support a claim of undue influence. Evidence of actual manipulation is required for the Surrogate’s Court to take the extraordinary step of invalidating a will.

In another case the Surrogate’s Court pointed out that it is also not enough to show that the testator changed the beneficiaries from those in a prior will. In Will in Bellasalmo, an objection to the will was based on a number of grounds, including undue influence. The objectant based the allegation of undue influence on the fact that the testator changed the names of the beneficiaries from those in a prior will. The court dismissed the objection. The Surrogate’s Court noted that while a prior testamentary scheme is a factor that the Court will consider in an undue influence case, the mere fact of changing who the beneficiaries are in the will alone is not sufficient to show undue influence. The Court also noted evidence presented by proponents of the will of the very specific reasons that the testator shared with her attorney as for why she chose to change the beneficiaries in her will.

Consequences of an undue influence challenge

If evidence shows that a will submitted to probate is not valid based on undue influence, the New York Surrogate’s Court will declare it invalid and will look to a prior will, if any. If there is a prior will that is valid, it will be probated. If there is not a prior valid will, the Surrogate’s Court will handle the estate based on New York’s rules of intestate succession. This mean that the decedent’s next of kin will be entitled to his (or her) estate. If the decedent has a surviving spouse and/or kids, they will get the entire estate. Otherwise it will go to other blood relatives based on priority rules. To learn more about intestate succession, contact a skilled undue influence attorney in New York.

However, not just anyone has the right to challenge a will based on undue influence or any other grounds. Under New York law, only those with standing have the legal right to object to a will. Those with standing include beneficiaries named in the current will, beneficiaries of the prior will, if any, and intestate heirs. These are the individuals who would stand to gain or lose financially based on the outcome of the will challenge.

Contact the Law Offices of Stephen Bilkis & Associates

If you are concerned about a will challenge or estate litigation based on a claim of undue influence, it is important that you are represented by a skilled undue influence attorney serving clients in New York who has the knowledge and resources to ensure that your legal rights are protected. The attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen Bilkis & Associates have years of experience representing clients in matters relating to estate disputes. Contact us at 1-800-NY-NY-LAW (1-800-696-9529) to schedule a free, no obligation consultation regarding your case. We represent clients in the following locations: Manhattan, Bronx, Westchester County, Long Island, Brooklyn, Nassau County, Queens, Staten Island, and Suffolk County.

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