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The difference between benign and undue influence

People create estate plans for the purpose of passing on assets to heirs and beneficiaries according to their own wishes. While we generally believe that people express their own desires in writing wills or creating trusts, instances may arise where a will was constructed through undue influence.

Under New York state law, this concept does not necessarily have a precise technical definition. Rather, case law has developed a set of criteria that judges can use to distinguish benign influence (i.e. lawful influence) from undue influence. 

For instance, the following actions are generally not seen as undue influence:

-          Honoring kind acts or friendly relationships, even if they are short term

-          Gratifying the wishes of another person, even if not those feelings were not previously returned

-          Suggestions from those who have intimate relationships, such as children or grandchildren.

Conversely, the following actions have been viewed as undue influence

-          Coercion on a moral level that restrains the testator’s free will

-          Actions that the testator could not refuse because he or she was too physically weak to resist.

-          Suggestive actions that amounted to force or fear.

Indeed, these situations are driven largely by context, so the facts in one case (without the proper context) may not necessarily apply in another.  Because of how complex undue influence cases can become, it is critical to have an experienced will contests attorney involved. A skilled lawyer can assess the matter, clearly explain your rights and options under state law so that you can make informed decisions on how to proceed. 

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