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What is Undue Influence and why is it prohibited?

Creating one's Will is an important right where the testator, or Will maker, directs how his or her property will be distributed upon death and who will wrap up the testator's estate. This right comes under threat, however, when undue influence erodes the testator's freedom to distribute his or her property upon death.


"Undue influence" is influence to a degree surpassing mere requests or pushy behavior by self interested friends or family members. It is a form of coercion that is deemed to completely overwhelm the testator's ability to make his or her own testamentary decisions. It is difficult to identify undue influence when it occurs because it usually occurs in private settings. To safeguard against undue influence, the court pays special attention to "confidential relationships" that the testator had with others where an implicit power imbalance existed between them. The court deems a certain class of persons - including but not limited to attorneys, caretakers and clergy members - as having confidential relationships with the testator. For such persons, the court places a presumption of undue influence that they may then rebut, based on particular facts and circumstances. The takeaway is that the onus to disprove undue influence shifts to the person deemed to have a confidential relationship with the testator rather than forcing the petitioner in the probate proceeding to prove undue influence.


For those persons who lack a confidential relationship with the testator, establishing undue influence is a more difficult task. It demands concrete proof of coercive actions by the undue influence that overwhelms the testator's free will at the time he or she executed the Will. This is further complicated by the low threshold required for the testator in general to make a Will. The testator only needs to generally know the nature and condition of his property, the natural objects of his bounty (those persons such as family members who would normally partake in the testator's Will), and the scope and meaning of the Will provisions as they relate to the overall plan.


If the Surrogate's Court determines that motive, opportunity, and actual exercise of undue influence has occurred, it will invalidate the Will. This legal framework underscores the court's commitment to protecting the integrity of the testamentary process.

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