Difference between Duress and Undue Influence

By: | Updated: Nov-18, 2017

In the study of law, “duress” and “undue influence” are legal terms that can be quite confusing. Both refer to circumstances that lead to being forced to into an undesirable act or an agreement. This article seeks to explain the basic differences between these legal terminologies.

Summary Table

DuressUndue Influence
A person is coerced or forced into committing an act as a result of being threatened with violenceA person uses a position of power to induce another to agree to a contract
Consent is negatedConsent, although influenced, is present

Descriptions

example of duress
A humorous depiction of a shotgun wedding

Duress, also referred to as coercion, describes a situation where an individual is forced to commit an act as a direct result of unlawful pressure, threat, or violence. It is the unlawful use of threats which cause a person to act in a way they would not normally act.

Duress is made up of two aspects. The first aspect is that takes away a person’s consent to an act (e.g. sexual activity). Another aspect is that it is seen as a legal defense or as a justification of an illegal act. In criminal law, a duress defense is similar to a guilty plea. This is where a defendant admits a degree of culpability to a crime but denies being liable because of the unlawful threat.

undue influence example
A last will and testament

In common law, undue influence occurs when an individual uses a position of power to influence another party’s decision in pursuit of an outcome beneficial to the former. This inequality in power or position can deny the other party’s ability to exercise free will. This ultimately leads to the negation of the party’s right to provide consent.

A transaction or contract can be deemed void if it is the result of undue influence. For instance, say an employee was forced into agreeing to a contract by the employer. The contract can be deemed voidable if it is proven in court that the employer did use undue influence. The contract is then set aside and canceled. In addition, the burden of proof lies on the party in the “higher” position (e.g. parent and child, doctor and patient) to disprove being guilty of exerting undue influence.

Duress vs Undue Influence

So what’s the difference between duress and undue influence? Both duress and undue influence are closely connected as both deal with situations surrounding people entering into agreements where the aggrieved wouldn’t have done so under normal circumstances. Although sometimes blurred, a fine line separates these legal terms.

Duress is a legal term for a situation that involves an individual who is threatened, (implicitly or explicitly) forced, or induced to commit an act. The aggrieved party must be able to give the court exact details about the circumstances created by the accused that forced him to commit the act. Undue influence, on the other hand, involves a person who is influenced by another person due to a shared relationship. It is determined when the influencing party takes advantage of the situation for personal gain. Undue influence is the most used ground in will disputes where the party challenging the will supplies the proof to support its claim.

Video

Here is a brief introduction about the difference between duress and undue influence.

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