What Constitutes a Valid Will in New York? Part 4: No Undue Influence

For a Will to be valid in New York, there must be an absence of undue influence.  Undue influence is an issue that arises in the context of a Will contest.  The person challenging the admission of the Will to probate may assert that the person making the Will (testator) did not have free will at the time that the Will was drafted. 

Undue influence implies that the testator was being advised to make certain property dispositions to the advisor who exercised power over the testator.  That power over could have been through psychological domination, or through a special relationship of trust such as one that would exist between long-time friends or siblings.  An allegation of undue influence may only arise in a Will contest when the advisor is receiving a direct benefit as a result of specific acts.  If the advisor is receiving an indirect benefit, then the proper charge is one of fraud.

What is the definition of undue influence with respect to the drafting of a Will?  The New York Court of Appeals defined the term in a case decided in 1877 called Children’s Aid Society v. Loveridge 70 N.Y. 387 (1877).   The definition has been used to determine the presence or absence of undue influence since that time:

“It must be shown that the influence exercised amounted to a moral coercion, which restrained independent action and destroyed free agency, or which, by importunity which could not be resisted, constrained the testator to do that which was against his free will and desire, but which he was unable to refuse or too weak to resist. It must not be the promptings of affection; the desire of gratifying the wishes of another; the ties of attachment arising from consanguinity, or the memory of kind acts and friendly offices, but a coercion produced by importunity, or by a silent resistless power which the strong will often exercises over the weak and infirm, and which could not be resisted, so that the motive was tantamount to force or fear lawful influences which arise from the claims of kindred and family or other intimate personal relations are proper subjects for consideration in the disposition of estates, and if allowed to influence a testator in his last will, cannot be regarded as illegitimate or as furnishing cause for legal condemnation” (Children’s Aid Soc. v. Loveridge, 70 N.Y. 387, 394-395).

There are certain confidential relationships where, absent an explanation, the inference of undue influence arises when the advisor is a named beneficiary in a Will.  The first such relationship to receive scrutiny is when the attorney drafting the Will is a named beneficiary in the Will.  “Such wills, when made to the exclusion of the natural objects of the testator’s bounty, are viewed with great suspicion by the law, and some proof should be required beside the factum of the will before the will can be sustained.”  (Marx v. McGlynn, 88 N.Y. 357, 371.).  In Matter of Putnam  257 N.Y. 140 (1931), the New York Court of Appeals held that there is a rebuttable inference of undue influence when an attorney is a named beneficiary in a Will that he or she drafted.  This is known as the Putnam rule

Lower courts in New York have since applied the Putnam rule to other confidential relationships, such as doctor and patient (Matter of Satterlee 119 N.Y.S.2d 309 (1953)); nurses and patients (Hazel v. Sacco, 52 A.D.2d 1042 [4th Dept 1976]); clergy and parishioner (Matter of Eckert 93 Misc 2d 677 (1978)); and accountant and client (Matter of Collins, 124 AD2d 48 (1987)).

To prove undue influence, the person objecting to the admission of the Will to probate must prove three elements: (1) motive, (2) opportunity and (3) actual acts of undue influence.  The standard of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning that it is more likely than not that the evidence presented is true.  Circumstantial evidence may be used, but this evidence must lead to a necessary conclusion of undue evidence.  The modest standard of proof, by a preponderance of the evidence, is used because the State has an interest in ensuring that estates are distributed in an orderly manner and according to the decedent’s wishes.  The person contesting the Will bears the burden of proof throughout the proceedings.

The issue of who bears the burden of proof is a Wills contest case is very important.  We have to distinguish between a claim of undue influence in a contracts dispute and a claim of undue influence in a Will contest. In a contract dispute, when the vulnerable party in a special relationship makes a claim of undue influence, the burden of proof shifts to the more powerful party to disprove the allegation. If the vulnerable party prevails, then the contract is voidable, meaning that the vulnerable party can elect to enforce the contract but the contract cannot be enforced against him or her. But in a Will contest where the issue of undue influence has been raised, the burden of proof never shifts from the person contesting the admission of the Will to probate.

How do these three elements play out in cases involving undue influence?  In a recent case decided in January 2010, Matter of Feller 2010 NY Slip Op 50001(U) [26 Misc 3d 1205(A)], the issue of undue influence arose in the context of funeral plans and the choice of a funeral home.  The attorney who had drafted the Will was also the executor of the estate and the proponent of the Will before the Surrogate Court.  But because the attorney was not a named beneficiary in the Will, the Putnam rule did not apply.   

The objectants to the admission of the Will to probate claimed that the attorney had used his influence to have the decedent change her funeral home.  The attorney had the opportunity to exert undue influence regarding the choice of a funeral home, and he did have a potential motive:  he represented a competitor funeral home.  But the record clearly showed that the decedent had selected a funeral home not represented by the attorney, eliminating any motive.  Moreover, the attorney had on several occasions advised his client that she should choose someone other than himself as executor.

Because the objectants failed to prove all three required elements to make a showing of undue influence, the court found an absence of undue influence.  The court also found that the testator had testamentary capacity and that the formalities for the Will execution ceremony had been properly followed.   The Will was, therefore, admitted to probate.

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