Undue Influence: Disputing a Last Will & Testament or Other Legal Documents

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A legal document such as a will, contract, or deed maybe nullified if it was signed under undue influence.

Massachusetts courts define undue influence as “whatever destroys free agency and constrains the person whose act is under review to do that which is contrary to his own untrammeled desire.”  See Neill v. Brackett, 234 Mass. 367.

This can occur in a number of different ways, according to the Supreme Judicial Court:

It may be caused by physical force, by duress, by threats, or by importunity. It may arise from persistent and unrelaxing efforts in the establishment or maintenance of conditions intolerable to the particular individual. It may result from more subtle conduct designed to create an irresistible ascendancy by imperceptible means. It may be exerted either by deceptive devices, or by material compulsion without actual fraud. Any species of coercion, whether physical, mental or moral, which subverts the sound judgment and genuine desire of the individual, is enough to constitute undue influence. 

However, establishing such a claim isn’t easy.

Courts will presume that a properly signed legal document is valid.  The Appellant Court, in Bruno v. Bruno, 10 Mass. App. Ct. 918, ruled that:

One who signs a writing that is obviously a legal document is presumed to be fully aware of its terms, unless it can be proved that he was induced to sign it by fraud or undue influence.

The burden of proving that a document was signed based on fraud or undue influence rests on the person making the claim.

The claimant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the person who signed his or her name to a legal document was induced to do so by illegal means.

The evidence presented must be substantial.  Again, citing the Appellant Court in Bruno:

Mere suspicion is not enough to warrant a finding of undue influence.  There must be a solid foundation of established facts upon which to rest an inference of its existence.

If you have any questions about Massachusetts law, please feel free to contact me via email at justin@jrmccarthy.com

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