A New York Estate Attorney is familiar with cases where a family member claims that a lifetime transfer of assets or a disposition in a Last Will is the subject of undue influence. Such claims when they arise during the life of a person who is alleged to have been taken advantage of are often the focus of litigation in Article 81 Guardianship Proceedings. These cases are usually filed in the New York State Supreme Court. It is interesting to note that if the Guardianship judge finds that a property transfer was the result of undue influence, pursuant to Mental Hygiene Law 81.29, the Court can void or revoke such transfer. Also, once a Guardian of the Property is appointed for an incapacitated person, the Guardian can commence Court proceedings to recover property that was wrongfully transferred.
After a person has died, a claim of undue influence may be asserted in a Will Contest. Undue influence is one of the grounds upon which a Will can be contested in Surrogate’s Court estate litigation.
Regardless of the forum, demonstrating undue influence, particularly where a person is deceased, can be difficult. Generally it must be shown that there was a motive and opportunity to exercise such influence and that the person’s independent ability to act was constrained by the influence. Since direct evidence of such acts is rarely available the circumstances surrounding the transaction can be examined.
Some recent cases provide an insight into the problem associated with demonstrating undue influence. Matter of Gorban is a case decided by Staten Island Surrogate Robert J. Gigante on August 15, 2014. In Gorban, the decedent placed the name of his female companion on the ownership papers of a cooperative apartment as a joint owner. As a result, when the decedent died the joint asset passed by operation of law automatically to the companion. The decedent’s son claimed that the joint ownership transaction was the result of wrongdoing including undue influence. Although the decedent had been ill with leukemia the Court found that there were insufficient facts to demonstrate the actual exercise of undue influence. Poor health alone is insufficient to provide a finding of such influence.
In an interesting article that appeared at wltx.com, Lyn Riddle, of The Greenville News posted on July 27, 2014 an article entitled “Family Sues Waitress Who Inherited Estate“. According to the article, a case is scheduled for a trial where the decedent signed a Will, after he went into the hospital, which disinherited his family in favor of a local restaurant waitress where he ate breakfast.
I have represented many family members in Guardianship and Estate cases involving claims of undue influence. It is important in all of these cases to identify and document specific acts and occurrences by the parties which can show the influence and improper conduct being alleged.
New York Guardianship Attorney Jules Martin Haas, Esq. has been representing clients in New York Guardianship Proceedings, Trusts and Estates matters and Surrogate’s Court proceedings throughout the past 30 years in New York, including Queens Guardianship and Nassau Guardianship. If you or someone you know is involved with or has questions about a New York Guardianship or estate, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org, for an initial consultation.
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