Undue influence happens when someone influences a person to change their will or estate plan in a way that takes over the decision making of the person making the will or estate plan. The factors that a New York Surrogate’s Court will consider when deciding whether or not there is undue influence are as follows:
- Significant change of testamentary plan or intention
- Deteriorating physical or mental condition
- The proponent of the will took an active role in procuring it
- The testator acted without independent advice and in secret
Those factors can be applied to examine undue influence allegations in wills, trusts, beneficiary designations, promissory notes, contracts, or any other legal documents.
Examples of Undue Influence Factors
Let’s look at the New York undue influence factors as they would apply in real life.
Change of Testamentary Plan – The decedent makes a prior will, trust or beneficiary designation. He then changes it and leaves someone out. Or gives his money away before his death, making the will, trust or beneficiary form ineffective. Why would he do such a thing?
It is possible that the decedent had a change of heart, or had a reason to leave out a person he’s previously wanted to be his heir. For example, the person might have upset him in some way, which can be a myriad of things – marriage, religion, personal relationship, filing a guardianship, financial issues, drug abuse, etc. But changing the testamentary plan can also point to undue influence by the people who had an inventive to meddle in the estate plan.
Significant Change of Intention – Let us say that the decedent had two children and was fine with them inheriting his property. He then made a will, leaving one of the children out. No estate plan is an estate plan as well. So one can argue that making an estate plan that leaves out someone who would have inherited by default is a significant change of intention. That’s a potential indicator of undue influence.
Deteriorating Physical or Mental Condition – A person who made a will while being very sick and medicated can be said to be in a deteriorating physical or mental condition. This decrease in mental ability makes a person more likely to be susceptible to undue influence. When we look at a decedent’s neurology progress notes from their hospital stay, we can see entries like “Awake and alert; inattentive, oriented to place and month, not year, Fluent speech with normal naming, repetition and comprehension, appears confused with agitated delirium,” like we see in Vermylen v. Genworth Life Ins. Co. of NY. If the document in question was made close to that time, we can use the medical notes as evidence of diminished capacity. Hospital and doctor’s notes can also tell us if the decedent had Alzheimer’s or Dementia during the time period when the document was signed.
The Proponent of the Will Took an Active Role in Procuring the Will – If the proponent is the one who did all the legwork in preparing a will, it can be argued that at some point the will stops being the decedent’s will, since they’re not the ones who arranged it. Instead, it becomes the will of the person who applied undue influence. The following factors point to the proponent’s significant role in procuring the decedent’s will:
- the proponent found the estate attorney
- the attorney is the proponent’s attorney who did some work for them in the past
- the proponent arranged the meeting between the estate lawyer and the decedent
- the proponent drove the decedent to the meeting with the lawyer
The Testator Acted Without Independent Advice and In Secret – the new estate plan was not known to the beneficiaries who were left out. If the decedent had an attorney, financial advisor or accountant, those advisers not involved and did not know about the new estate plan.
The undue influence factors are well-applied in the opinion of New York County Surrogate’s Court Judge Rita M. Mella. Judge Mella is my contemporary, I’ve had the honor of appearing in her court on many occasions. See Matter of Kotick, 2014 NY Slip Op 51953 – NY: Surrogate’s Court, 2014.
Here’s more information on undue influence standards in New York.
Evidence of any of the factors does not automatically mean that undue influence occurred. But those factors can go a long way in showing the existence of undue influence.
Call the Law Offices of Albert Goodwin at (212) 233-1233, New York estate, guardianship, wills, trust, medicaid and probate lawyer, and make an appointment to discuss your undue influence claim.
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