A valid contract is a legally enforceable agreement between two or more mentally competent parties. Your signature on a contract affirms that you understand and accept the terms, whether they involve an exchange or an agreement to do (or not do) something. But being forced, pressured, or tricked into signing a contract goes against the very concept of contract law.
Still, people do sometimes sign contracts under duress or because of undue influence or coercion. These are all legal terms referring to questionable tactics, and they may invalidate a contract. Read on for answers to questions you may have about signing under duress and challenging a contract you didn’t voluntarily sign.
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Can I be forced to sign a contract?
It’s possible that someone could force you to sign a contract, but the real question is whether that contract would be valid. If you feel you have been forced to sign a contract, there are steps you may take to try to prove your case and invalidate the contract.
First, though, it’s important to understand what it means to be “forced” to sign a contract under the law. If you failed to read the contract thoroughly or realized later that you didn’t fully understand its terms, that’s on you. If someone gave you a hard sell and strongly encouraged you to sign, but the elements of a valid contract are all there, then that would probably not be considered “undue pressure.”
However, if you feel that you were coerced or compelled to sign a contract because the other party had leverage over you, made threats if you didn’t, or somehow you were dependent on them and felt you needed to sign the agreement because of that dependency, then there may be some coercion there.
What does it mean to sign a contract under duress?
Being pressured to sign a contract under duress, also called coercion, means you’re signing it against your will. In extreme cases, a party may threaten physical violence or even death unless you sign. Psychological pressure or lies about what could happen if you don’t sign may also be considered duress. One example of duress might be telling someone, “If you don’t accept these terms, you’ll face financial ruin.”
There are several ways one person may use duress to compel another person to sign a contract, including:
- Threat of violence.
- Threat against personal liberty.
- Extraordinary economic pressure.
- Unconscionability, or bad faith, in the bargaining process or terms.
- Misrepresentation, or fraud.
- Nondisclosure of information that is material to the contract.
- Terms that are impossible to satisfy.
The key to determining whether there was duress is looking at how the actions affected the alleged victim’s ability to make an informed decision. This is, by its nature, a subjective assessment. Whether or not there was duress, as a legal matter, may not just depend on whether a “reasonable person” would have felt unduly pressured. It depends on the facts of the case and the specific relationship between the people involved.
Duress may happen at any time leading up to the actual signing of the contract. For example, Carol’s approach to the bargaining process might be considered bad faith if Carol knew that a subtle threat to Terry’s social status would lead Terry to sign something that she would otherwise reject.
What is undue influence?
Undue influence with respect to signing a contract is much more subtle than coercion or duress and involves persuasion — similar to how a con artist operates. Courts typically consider the dynamics of the relationship and patterns of behavior when determining undue influence, rather than just one or a few specific actions.
The classic example of undue influence involves someone who gets close to an elderly person, perhaps striking up an intense friendship or encouraging dependency, such as by moving in with the older person and providing hospice care. The individual may hint at needing financial assistance, with the goal of persuading the elderly person to name the individual as an heir.
Typically, surviving relatives seeking to have such a will invalidated will argue that the deceased person signed the will as a result of undue influence. Generally, courts will consider the following factors when the validity of a contract is challenged on such grounds:
- The victim’s vulnerability. Courts will consider the victim’s age, mental capacity, isolation from others, level of dependency, and whether the individual accused of undue influence knew or should have known about the victim’s vulnerability.
- Authority of the influencing individual. Someone’s status as a family member, fiduciary, clergy, care provider, or legal consultant may help determine whether that person had ample opportunity to influence the victim.
- Actions or tactics used. Did the influencing individual have control over medications or other necessities of life, use affection or intimidation, or make changes in property rights at inappropriate times?
- Consequences of the actions. What was the result of the influencing individual’s actions and how far does it stray from the victim’s original intentions? Is it appropriate in light of the relationship?
How do I get out of a contract I signed under duress or as a result of undue influence?
If you believe you were forced to sign a contract that was not in your best interests, you may take action to invalidate it. However, it’s considered valid until you prove otherwise. For example, if you’re sued for breaching the contract’s terms, you might argue that you signed it under duress or undue influence. It’s a good idea to work with an attorney if you’re involved in a contract dispute of this nature.
If you claim duress, you may need to prove that you accepted the terms of the contract primarily because of a threat. Even if the other party didn’t intend to follow through with the threat, it may be considered duress if it had the effect of influencing you to sign.
As we discussed earlier, courts generally determine the presence of undue influence based on relationships, tactics, and other more subtle facts leading up to the signing.
Make sure your contracts are legit and serve your interests
Regardless of which side you’re on, the best contracts involve an exchange of goods or services that serve all parties’ interests. Being forced (or forcing someone) to sign a contract, whether through duress or undue influence, can cause problems for everyone involved. If you have questions about contract law or believe you may have signed a contract against your will, be sure to ask a lawyer about your legal options.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.