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What Is Duress?

Duress occurs when a person is influenced to sign a contract under pressure. Duress can be applied when a contract is made or when a contract was modified. Typical examples of duress include threats to personal liberty, threats of actual violence, and excessive economic pressure. 

Duress is determined not by the nature of the pressure though, but by the state of mind induced in the victim. If you sign a contract under duress, the court may find the entire contract invalid. 

Duress and Contracts

Duress occurs when a person has been forced to do something by means of a threat.  A person may raise a duress defense when force or violence is used to compel him to enter into a contract or to discharge one.  When a person raises a duress defense, the accused asserts that the contract should be invalid because he did not voluntarily enter into the contract.  A person who enters into a contract under duress may cancel or breach that contract 

Economic Duress

Another form of duress in contracts law is economic duress.  This form of duress is commonly found in commercial contract disputes.  Economic duress occurs when one party uses economic pressure to unfairly force another party into a contract.  Courts will look very closely at the nature of the economic duress to determine if the pressure is unfair.  However, not all threats to breach a contract will constitute economic duress, especially if the threats were lawfully made.

However, not all threats to breach a contract will constitute economic duress, especially if the threat was simply legal action and/or a typical event in average business dealings. A party which threatens to cancel the contract or which promises to bring a lawsuit to force performance is not committing duress.

In addition, the threat must come from the other party, not a third party or an outside force. War, for instance, is not a valid form of economic duress, even if one party was in physical danger.


Consideration is the bargaining and exchange of goods or services. Consideration is considered the heart of a contract; without consideration, there is no contract. One of the fastest ways to check for duress is to see if proper consideration was given.

When duress is applied, one party will benefit but the other party will only receive that which was originally promised. A promise to do what a promisor was already legally bound to do is not consideration. Note that this does not automatically mean that duress was applied, but the fact that only party was enriched from the modified agreement is highly suspicious. However, if both parties benefit, then consideration exists, which makes it unlikely that duress was a factor. 

For example, A agrees to mow B’s lawn in exchange for $100. However, A decides that he wants $200 instead. If A and B renegotiate the terms, A gets $200 in exchange for A mowing B’s lawn and doing B’s homework, then there is consideration and thus a valid contract.

Suppose though, that A refuses to mow B’s lawn until B gives A $200 instead of the initially agreed $100. This alone would not establish duress, but a court would certainly look into the circumstances more.

Circumstantial Evidence of Duress

Sometimes it is difficult to tell if duress is being applied. Courts examine other factors to determine if undue pressure is being exerted on one party by another:

What Can You Do if You Enter into a Contract under Duress?

If you are sued for breaching a contract  or you made a contract under conditions you think might constitute duress, you should speak to a lawyer immediately to learn more about your rights, possible defenses, and how to deal with the complicated legal system.

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Last Modified: 04-18-2013 12:23 PM PDT

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