Heirs and beneficiaries to a New York estate want the testor’s will to have been completed under fair circumstances. A person leaving his or her assets to beneficiaries should do so without any coercive or intrusive influences. However, this may not always be the case. Sometimes a person may actually compose a will under duress. If a heir or beneficiary suspects a testor signed a will under coercive pressure, they can initiate legal action to contest the will.
The definition of duress offered by Findlaw describes the term “duress” as a derivation of the Anglo-French word duresce, which literally means “hardness” or “harshness.” In its modern meaning, duress is defined as compelling an individual to commit an act against that person’s own wishes or desires. This compulsion is wrong in an ethical sense and typically is illegal. It can take the form of threatening a person, physically or psychologically, to draw up a will favorable to the coercer. In essence, to be under duress is to be subjected to harsh behavior designed to get you to do something you do not want to do.
The New York City Bar makes clear that a will signed under duress can be contested in court and, if a judge is convinced a will is a product of coercion, will annul some or all of its provisions. While duress can be difficult to prove, there are circumstances that can indicate that duress had taken place. For example, someone who is in financial hardship may have a lease on their property or is a renter. The person holding that lease or rent may insist the renter or lessee hand over assets in a will.
It should also be noted that signing a will under duress is not the only way someone can be coerced into signing a will against that person’s better judgment. A person can lie to a testor, perhaps about financial information related to their assets, and the testor will make a will based on that information. This is called fraud. Additionally, a testor may have a close acquaintance who acts on the testor’s infirmities, perhaps physical or mental, to secure a will that leaves the acquaintance assets as opposed to the testor’s own children.