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Appellate Division rejected objectant’s claims that beneficiary had turned testator against them. In re Eastman, 63 A.D.3d 738 (N.Y. App. Div. 2009)


Undue influence in New York involves exerting improper pressure to manipulate a testator’s free will and control their testamentary decisions. Specifically, when one person strategically influences a testator to harbor negative sentiments against another individual, it constitutes undue influence. This could include actions like spreading false information, creating a distorted perception, or exploiting a position of trust to turn the testator against someone they would otherwise favor. In the context of wills, New York law seeks to ensure that the testator’s decisions are genuine and reflective of their true intentions, free from external coercion or manipulation.

In re Eastman, 63 A.D.3d 738 (N.Y. App. Div. 2009) involves a contested probate proceeding, where the objectant raises objections to the probate of the last will and testament of Laura Delano Eastman, citing fraud and undue influence. Central to the dispute is the alleged influence exerted by Marguerite Lewis, a friend of the decedent. The objectant, a beneficiary under the will, asserts that Lewis unduly swayed the decedent by casting the objectant in an unfavorable light after the termination of their relationship. Additionally, the objectant contends that the decedent was misled about the financial and physical well-being of another beneficiary, her sister Judith Adams, resulting in a purported decrease in her share of the estate.

Background Facts
Laura Delano Eastman’s will, dated January 15, 2004, and a codicil dated October 22, 2004, form the basis of the probate proceeding. The objectant argues that Lewis, a nonbeneficiary, exercised undue influence, impacting the testamentary decisions. The Surrogate’s Court, Suffolk County, rendered a decision on November 5, 2007, granting the petitioners’ motion for summary judgment. This decision dismissed the objectant’s objections to probate, including those based on fraud and undue influence.  The decision was appealed.

Whether the undue influence significantly affected the decedent’s free will in distributing her assets.

The Surrogate’s Court affirmed the Surrogate’s Court decision, dismissing the objections based on fraud and undue influence. The court found that the petitioners demonstrated the will’s proper execution, the decedent’s testamentary capacity, and the absence of undue influence or fraud.

To challenge a will based on undue influence, the objectant must show that the influence amounted to moral coercion, restraining independent action and destroying free agency. Similarly, a claim of fraud requires clear and convincing evidence that false statements induced the testator to dispose of property differently. The petitioners established their entitlement to judgment by demonstrating the will’s proper execution and the decedent’s capacity.

In response, the objectant’s submissions lacked concrete evidence, relying on conclusory allegations and speculation. The court emphasized the need to show actual exercise of undue influence or fraud, not just the existence of opportunity and motive. Without this showing, the evidence falls short of raising a triable issue regarding the decedent’s intent reflected in the will.

Ultimately, the Surrogate’s Court rightly dismissed objections based on fraud and undue influence, as the objectant failed to substantiate her claims with concrete evidence. Evidence of undue influence in a legal context typically includes demonstrating the presence of factors that coerced or manipulated the testator’s decision-making. This may involve presenting documentation, such as contemporaneous records or communications, illustrating the influencer’s undue control. Affidavits or testimonies from witnesses who observed coercive behavior, particularly if they were not beneficiaries, can be crucial. Additionally, highlighting the testator’s vulnerability, potential isolation, or dependence on the influencer strengthens the case. The court may also consider the sudden or significant changes in the testamentary documents that align with the influencer’s interests. Collectively, this evidence aims to establish the inappropriate sway exerted over the testator’s intentions.

The case underscores the legal principles surrounding undue influence and fraud in probate proceedings, emphasizing the necessity of demonstrating actual coercion or fraudulent inducement. If you have concerns over whether the will of a loved one was properly executed, contact the experienced New York estate litigation attorneys at Stephen Bilkis & Associates.

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