Handwriting Expert Witness Concludes Will Forgery

20 Oct 2021 | Katie de Swarte

It’s not unheard of for an individual to forge someone’s will with the aim of securing an inheritance. In a recent case, the combination of contradictory evidence from a key individual involved in the forgery, and expert witness testimony, led to the rightful beneficiary succeeding in her claim. 

The contentious probate team at Osbornes Law has a successful track record in representing clients with speed and sensitivity at a time when they may still be grieving.

The background

This was a bitter family dispute following the death of a grandmother. The court had to decide which of two wills, purportedly made a month apart, was genuine. 

The first will was drafted and witnessed in February 2018 by a firm of solicitors and appointed the deceased’s niece, Ann, as an executor. She was close to her aunt and was also named as the sole beneficiary of the whole estate. At the same time, Ann was appointed as the deceased’s attorney under a Lasting Power of Attorney

The second will was purportedly a homemade will drafted by one of the deceased’s sons, Paul, executed in March 2018. This left the estate to three grandchildren. When Ann discovered Paul had obtained Grant of Probate (on 9 January 2019) on the basis of the March ‘will’, she brought proceedings claiming it was a forgery. 

The court heard testimony from a number of witnesses, including expert witnesses in relation to the deceased’s signature and, separately, a picture on Paul’s iPhone. 

The niece and the defendants had their own handwriting experts but their evidence was at odds. The niece’s expert, for example, found strong evidence that the deceased had not signed the March will herself. However, the defence expert said there was “moderate” evidence it was genuine. On considering their evidence, the court preferred that of the niece’s expert. On the basis of that and the wider factual background, the court found that, on balance, the March will was a forgery. 

Importantly, a crucial element of Paul’s case was expert evidence relating to a digital photograph which he claimed was of the original executed March will taken on 7 March 2018. The expert was asked to examine it and extract the internal metadata. 

It’s fair to say this backfired somewhat. Although the expert said the metadata showed the photograph was taken at 08.57 on 7 March 2018, he conceded that both the metadata and the GPS time stamp could be modified and manipulated – even by someone who could cheat at computer games. Paul’s own expert could not convince the court that the photo was taken when he claimed. 

The court concluded that the forged will was concocted sometime between 11 December 2018 and before the grant of probate was obtained. This meant the March will would stand, and Ann would inherit her aunt’s estate as intended. 

Overview

The evidence of Ann’s handwriting expert was a particularly strong reason for the court finding the will to be a forgery. That said, the expert evidence in relation to the metadata was not only insufficient to cast doubt on Ann’s case, it seriously undermined Paul’s defence.  

The case illustrates the value of employing any appropriate expert witnesses in probate disputes to ensure all bases are covered – one expert witness’ evidence can make or break a case.

Katie de Swarte is an associate solicitor who specialises in contested claims. Katie is able to advise you on whether you can bring such a claim, based on the facts of your circumstances, and is also able to assist in defending such a claim. Katie is featured in the Legal 500 as a recommended solicitor in London.

To speak with Katie please call, or complete an online enquiry form.

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    • Katie de Swarte and Elspeth Neilson have both instructed me recently, and both seemed to me to be able to build excellent relationships with their clients and to run their practices very efficiently

      Legal 500 2022

    • Katie de Swarte is hardworking and has great empathy for her clients

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