Probating a Will in New York requires that the document satisfy the Court requirements for authenticity. In other words, a Last Will must be executed in the manner required by the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law. This requires a writing and at least two witnesses.
In addition to the basic statutory directives, the Surrogate’s Court may be shown that a decedent had testamentary capacity and was not subject to undue influence. Testamentary capacity typically concerns whether a person recognized that he was signing a Will and had knowledge concerning the natural objects of his bounty (i.e., his family and friends) and also was aware of his assets. This basic knowledge reflects on a person’s ability to dispose of an estate.
When it comes to the area of undue influence, the effect of such a factor becomes much less defined and many times more difficult to determine. Undue influence concerns influence which a person normally would not succumb to, absent other factors. These other factors may be susceptibility due to old age or illness or even dependence. The prevailing factual climate and circumstances surrounding a decedent at the time of signing a Will may involve numerous events. Motive and opportunity are always considerations. The New York Probate Lawyer Blog has many articles concerning Will contests and probate.
Undue influence is a common ground for an objection in a Will contest. However, there are other situations where a claim of undue influence can arise. For example, a person may be unduly influenced to sign a contract or a deed or to make lifetime gifts or enter into a trust. It is very common in Article 81 Guardianship cases for a petitioner to claim that the alleged incapacitated person was unduly influenced into transferring assets. In guardianship cases, the Guardianship Court has the authority to void deeds and other documents if it finds that the incapacitated person executed them without adequate capacity. A Guardianship Court can even void a marriage if incapacity is shown.
A recent Brooklyn case decided by Kings County Supreme Court Justice Richard Montellione provides an example of how possible undue influence was involved in a deed transaction. In Estate of Beckford v. Morse-Spalding, decided on February 28, 2022, a decedent, prior to his death, had commenced an action claiming that a deed transferring his property to others was the subject of a fraud. The decedent had sought to void the deed. As it turned out, the defendants defaulted and the deed was found to be void and cancelled. However, the defendants sought to vacate the default. Although there were a number of irregularities regarding the original lawsuit. The Court did not find these matters sufficient to vacate the default. Also, the Court did not find that the defendants had shown that they had a meritorious defense or valid excuse for the default. Instead, the Court was concerned that the irregularities and the involvement of the decedent’s niece, who benefited from the lawsuit and was the substituted plaintiff in the action, along with the decedent’s possible incapacity, raised issues as to whether the decedent was unduly influenced or actually had the capacity to file the initial lawsuit to void the deed prior to his death. The Court was concerned that a fraud had been committed against the Court. As a result, the Court directed a hearing to determine whether the decedent authorized or had the capacity to authorize the filing of the original action to void the deed or whether the lawsuit was free of undue influence.
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New York Trusts and Estates Attorney Jules Martin Haas has helped many clients over the past 40 years resolve issues relating to guardianship and probate and estate settlement throughout New York City including the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Nassau and Suffolk County. If you or someone you know has any questions regarding these matters, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial free consultation.