One of the more common allegations in estate litigation is the assertion that someone exerted undue influence on a decedent, either causing the decedent to transfer property before death to that person or to change a will or trust the benefit of the undue influencer. One of the challenges, in these cases, is determining exactly what constitutes “undue influence.” Fortunately, in New York, the courts have addressed this issue, most famously in Matter of Ryan, 34 AD3d 212 (2006).
In Ryan, the court considered allegations of undue influence in the estate of a 92-year-old woman who died in early 1995. She had eight children living at the time of her death, and her last will and testament, executed in 1992, specifically excluded three of them from receiving any of the proceeds of her estate, valued at approximately $450,000. Instead, most of the estate was left to her other children, as well as the wife of her eldest son, Tomas. There were provisions in the 1992 will explaining why she had disinherited the three offspring—because they had initiated proceedings in California to remove Tomas as a co-fiduciary in the estate of the decedent’s brother-in-law. The 1992 will also had a handwritten note attached to it, stating the specific reasons for the disinheritance.
The three disinherited children objected to the probate of the will, saying its execution had been obtained by fraud and undue influence. The Surrogate Court denied that summary judgment, concluding that there were sufficient factual issues that a jury could consider to find the existence of undue influence. The appellate court disagreed.
According to the appellate court, the well-settled law in New York defines
“undue influence” as “mental coercion that led the testator to carry out the wishes of another, instead of his or her own wishes, because the testator was unable to refuse or too weak to resist.” (Matter of Burke)
The court also cited established law that requires both a showing of motive and opportunity to exert undue influence, as well as actual proof of undue influence. Circumstantial evidence may suffice, but it must be of a “substantial nature.”
According to the appellate court, the only basis for undue influence asserted in Ryan was that Tomas had such a relationship with his mother that she was always willing to “take his side in all disputes.” The court found that the decedent had such a relationship with his mother that predated the execution of any of her wills, and held that “gratitude, love, esteem or friendship which induces another to make testamentary dispositions of property cannot ordinarily be considered as arising from undue influence.”
The appellate court also found that:
- There was no evidence that Tomas coerced his mother to do anything she didn’t want to do
- There was evidence that Tomas was not aware of the existence of his mother’s wills and was not involved in their preparation or execution
- There was no evidence that the decedent had any mental or physical condition that took away her ability to act on her own behalf
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