If the contents of a person’s will comes as a surprise, with unexpectedly large gifts or named beneficiaries then one of the things to check is if the will is genuine. The will could be contested if it is forged or some sort of fraud has taken place. Of course, these allegations are very serious and require very compelling evidence to prove them. Just because the terms of a person’s will may be unusual or eccentric, this does not mean it is a fake will. The court won’t overturn the will on such grounds very lightly – indeed it is very rare so when such cases are successful they tend to be widely reported in the media.
What is a forged will?
The most common allegation is that the signature on a will is a forgery. That makes it invalid as it does not comply with the formalities for making a will as it wasn’t signed by the individual whose will it was supposed to be or was signed by someone else at their request
In order to successfully argue that a signature on a will has been forged it is usually essential to obtain expert handwriting evidence which supports the allegation. The handwriting expert will look at various known examples of the individual’s handwriting and compare these to the handwriting and signature on the will. They may also be able to use chemical and other forms of testing on the will to check to see if the signature is genuine and made on the date that it was supposed to be. There needs to be two witnesses to a will, so if there is evidence that the signature was forged then this raises concerns that the witnesses were involved in the forgery.
Forging a will is serious and there has been has been a number of cases where people have been successfully prosecuted in the criminal courts and imprisoned as a result of their involvement in it.
What is a fraudulent will?
Fraud can take many different forms. The most common example of fraud when it comes to wills is when an individual’s last valid will has either been destroyed or hidden. Either an earlier will is put forward in its place which normally which benefits the person trying to commit the fraud, or there is an allegation that there is no valid will so the estate passes to surviving family in accordance with the intestacy rules.
A will could also be fraudulent in a situation where a person had made provision in a will for a beneficiary but only on the basis of an individual telling them lies and misrepresenting the true position so that beneficiary inherits, often at the expense of someone else.
A will may be fraudulent if the person trying to prove it as a valid will knows that the individual did not sign the will in front of two witnesses and the witness’ signatures were added to the will at a later date. This means that it does not comply with the formalities for making a valid will. The witnesses to the could be involved in the fraud if they try to pretend that they were present when the individual signed the will.
One of the most extreme examples of fraud would be where an individual makes a will pretending to be someone else. Clearly in that situation the signature on the will would also be a forgery.
What are the possible signs of a forged or fraudulent will?
If you believe that a will could be forged or fraudulent then here a few points you should consider:
- Does the will benefit non family members and it would be unusual or out of character for them to provide for them? E.g. carers
- Was the will made shortly before the person passed away?
- Does the signature or handwritten look like the person whose will it is supposed to be?
- Was the will homemade?
- Are the witnesses related or connected to a person who benefits under the will?
- Are the provisions of the will significantly different from those in a previous will?
- Did the person say that they had made a will but one cannot be located?
- Was a will found unexpectedly after the person’s death at a location other than at a professional’s office?
- Did the person make no or little provision for a child or spouse when this would have been expected?
If it can be proved that a will is a forgery or fraudulent then the estate will therefore pass via a person’s last valid will of if there isn’t one then according to the intestacy rules.
However, it is important to remember that it is difficult to successfully challenge a will on the basis that it was forged or fraudulent as the evidence to support such a challenge can be extremely difficult to obtain. If a will was professionally drafted by a solicitor and witnessed in front of them then it will extremely difficult to support an allegation of forgery as that solicitor would have to be involved in the fraud – something the courts are reluctant to consider.
Given the allegations these claims tend to be hotly defended and like undue influence claims, there may be another explanation e.g. in cases of alleged forgery, the signature may not look like the person whose will it was because the person was very ill at the time they signed it so it is not identical to previous versions of their handwriting.
Claims involving allegations of fraud or forgery can be very upsetting and stressful for all those involved, whether you are bringing such a case or defending it. Like other claims in this area, it may involve other family members but given the seriousness nature of the allegations, once made they can damage reputations and ruin relationships. It is therefore very important that specialist legal advice is taken from the outset so any suspicions can be properly investigated and evidence gathered before allegations are made.