Attorney at Law


Lia Kopin-Green
December 14, 2022

What is Duress?

Duress is the act of using threats, psychological pressure, or coercion to force someone into behaving in a way that is contrary to their wishes or interests. Simply put, duress can be generally defined as undue influence or unfair persuasion.

According to United States federal law, any agreement a person made under duress is considered invalid. Claims of duress are usually filed if a party wants to prove that their decision to enter into a contract was not made in good faith, and therefore they should not be required to uphold its obligations. In some circumstances, duress may be filed if a party fears for their life or safety. For instance, this may occur if a person is threatening physical harm to a party that refuses to sign a contract.

Key Takeaways

  • Duress refers to the act of using threats, psychological pressure, force or coercion to  influence someone into behaving a certain way that is contrary to their wishes or interests.
  • If a party comes to an agreement under duress, the contract is rendered null and void.
  • If an illegal act was committed as a result of threats, psychological pressure, or coercion, a party may claim duress.

How Duress Works in Contract Law

Duress laws have been enacted in order to maintain good faith and fairness in contract law. Under these principles, a person should be able to act (or not act) according to their own free will. Any contract that has been signed as a result of threats, psychological pressure or any other type of force may be deemed invalid.

As an example, assume that you are interested in purchasing a new apartment. After touring the property, you decide that the apartment is not suitable for your needs and inform the landlord that you will not be buying the apartment. As a result, the landlord holds a gun to your head and threatens that he will shoot you if you do not move forward with the purchase. Under these circumstances, you can sign the purchase contract and later rescind it in court by proving that you entered into the agreement under duress. Consequently, the contract will not be enforced.

Requirements for Duress

Each state has different requirements when it comes to proving duress in court. While these rules vary, the party must generally prove that:

  • A reasonable threat to seriously bodily harm or death actually exists. Even if no serious harm was caused, as long as the threat of harm is reasonable, this may be used as a valid defense.
  • The party believes that the perpetrator will carry out the threat. This is typically measured by determining the level of fear a reasonable person would experience when faced with the threat.
  • The effect of the threat must have been that it forced the party to enter into a contract or commit a crime unwillingly.

Bottom Line

Duress is an essential legal term that plays an key role in business law, contract law and criminal law. If you need help proving that you entered an agreement or committed an illegal act under duress, reach out to one of our top-tier attorneys as soon as possible.

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