Will forgery: can they get away with it?
Can disappointed beneficiaries forge signatures on wills, for their own benefit or the benefit of others? This is an unfortunate issue that contentious practitioners are beginning to see on a more regular basis. A recent judgment on this topic shows how important expert handwriting evidence is in cases like this.
In Rainey v Weller, a case which Deputy Master Linwood described as yet “another sad and bitter family dispute concerning wills”, the court was asked to determine whether a will made on 9 February 2018 was genuine (“the February Will”), and/or whether a later will made on 5 March 2018 (“the March Will”) was also genuine and therefore revoked the February Will.
The February Will was prepared professionally by Austin Ryder Solicitors. Mrs Weller, the deceased, gave her instructions on 2 February 2018 and expressed her wish to appoint Ann Rainey, her niece and the claimant, as sole executrix and sole beneficiary of her estate. The February Will was executed on 9 February 2018, at Austin Ryder’s office in Cheshunt.
The defendants then claimed that in March 2018, Paul Weller, the first defendant and son of the deceased, prepared a will for his mother upon her instructions, using a template he found online. The March Will appointed Paul as sole executor and divided the estate equally between the deceased’s three grandchildren. Paul’s mother purportedly confirmed to him that this is what she wanted.
Following the deceased’s death in November 2018, Paul, without telling Ann, applied for the Grant of Probate using the March Will, getting this in January 2019. Ann instructed solicitors after seeing the March Will, as she did not believe the deceased’s signature was genuine and must have been forged – most likely by Paul.
Proceedings were issued and the parties obtained expert handwriting evidence. The case was heard over a three-day trial and a total of 13 witnesses were called to give evidence. After careful consideration of the witness testimonies, together with the expert handwriting evidence before him, Deputy Master Linwood held that the March Will had been forged and the deceased didn’t execute that will. He held that it was forged for a number of reasons, including:
- It would have been highly improbable, indeed verging on impossible, that the deceased would have significantly changed her wishes in a four week period;
- It did not make sense that she would not have gone back to her solicitors to amend the will;
- Paul did not produce the March Will straight away;
- The evidence of the claimant’s handwriting expert was moderate to strong that the signature had been forged.
The Deputy Master held that on the balance of probabilities, Paul had concocted the March Will at some point after his mother’s death, as he was not made aware of the terms of the February Will until his mother passed away.
Mrs Weller had a long, deep and loving relationship with the claimant and trusted her – as is evidenced by appointing her as executrix and LPA – but had no such relationship with her own children or some of the grandchildren, so Paul’s disappointment upon seeing the February Will would have been clear.
The attendance notes prepared by Austin Ryder confirmed what the deceased’s intentions were in February 2018 and there were no such attendance notes for the March Will, which would have explained such a sudden change in intentions.
This case also highlights the continued importance of expert handwriting evidence in litigation. Regardless of how many signatures someone has sight of, it’s highly unlikely that they will be able to successfully imitate that signature to the extent that a specialist handwriting expert will not pick up on it.
James Wright and Richard Smaller are solicitors in the Will, Trust and Estate Disputes team at Irwin Mitchell