With legal documents, like a Power of Attorney or Living Will, it is generally assumed that the person who signed them did so because they wanted to. But what if you feel you’ve been forced into signing something that you wouldn’t normally agree to?
Take a closer look at terms such as undue influence, coercion, and duress, and learn about how these factors affect a contract’s validity.
Read More: The Elements of a Valid Contract
What is an Example of Undue Influence?
Undue influence is when someone pressures another person into signing a contract. Undue influence usually focuses more on how the relationship between the parties may have affected the circumstances behind signing the contract.
As an example, let’s say a wealthy grandmother, named Wendy, fell ill, and as a result her granddaughter, Jill, decided to move in with her.
When Wendy passed away, the other members of the family discovered that in Wendy’s Will, she left Jill in control of her bank accounts. Another grandchild, Brent, contests that Wendy was under undue influence in leaving control of her bank accounts to Jill. In this case, there would be a presumption of undue influence due to the fact that Jill lived with Wendy.
Because the law presumes that undue influence has occurred because Jill is benefiting from the contract, Jill would need to provide proof that Wendy was not unduly influenced. Jill could provide evidence that Wendy was not the victim of undue influence by showing that Wendy consulted an attorney for council without Jill being present.
What is an Example of Coercion or Duress?
Coercion or duress is when someone is forced to perform an act (such as signing a legal document) against his or her will by using threats, physical violence, psychological pressure, or other tactics.
Let’s use the same example as above, except Jill has now threatened Wendy with physical violence in order to obtain a financial inheritance. Since Wendy was forced to make the decision under the threat of physical violence, this would be coercion or duress.
Can Duress Make a Contract Voidable?
If it can be proven that one of the parties that signed the contract was under duress, then the contract can be considered voidable. Usually, an investigation would take place into the circumstances of the contract. The relationship between the parties are usually investigated to uncover how it may have affected someone feeling pressured to sign.
Although there is no law in the United States stating that writing some form of “under duress” near your signature or somewhere on the contract will render the contract voidable, there are some sources that suggest this is a possible tactic.
As an example, Diane James, a politician from the United Kingdom, was allegedly pressured into becoming the new leader of the UK Independence Party in the fall of 2016. It was reported that she wrote “under duress” in Latin on the official forms that she needed to sign in order to take over the party. James ended up resigning from her position a mere 18 days later, and the “under duress” was accepted as simply an indication that she may have been pressured into signing the documents.
It is important to realize that if one of the parties that signed a contract stated that they were pressured into doing so, an investigation would occur. There is no guarantee that writing some form of “under duress” on the contract would automatically render the contract voidable.
Read More: What Do I Need to Sign a Contract?
What Should I Do if I Think I’ve Been Forced to Sign a Contract?
Before you sign any type of contract, you should ensure that you have read the document completely and that you understand the entirety of its contents.
If you feel you were forced or coerced into signing a contract, you should seek legal counsel by consulting an attorney that is familiar with your state’s contract law. In order to prove that coercion took place, they will need to carefully analyze the specific circumstances that led you to sign the document(s) and why you couldn’t have simply declined. An attorney can help you determine what the next steps should be, and guide you along in the process of potentially getting your contract revoked.