Forgery and fabrication … when is a signature not their own?

    Forgery and fabrication … when is a signature not their own?

    Though it may sound fanciful, legal professionals practicing in Contentious Probate often hear accusations of forged signatures on Wills and similar documents. Such claims are often raised by disinherited family members who are shocked at the terms of a loved one’s Will.

    But how difficult is it to prove that a signature was forged? In the case of Rainey v Weller and Others 2021, the family went all the way to the High Court to find out.

    Rainey v Weller and Others 2021

    Brenda Weller died on 24 November 2022, a Widow, leaving three Children, Paul, Stephen and Toni, as well as a large extended family including her Husband’s Niece, Ann Rainey.

    In February 2018, Brenda asked Ann to arrange an appointment for her with Austin Ryder Solicitors to make a Will. Ann duly did so and Brenda executed her Will on 9 February 2018 (“the February Will”). This left Brenda’s entire Estate to Ann, though she was not aware of this at the time.

    After Brenda had died, Paul alleged that in March 2018 she had asked him to make a Will for her (“the March Will”). Paul drew this up on his Mother’s behalf using an online template, and witnessed it along with Toni. The March Will left Brenda’s Estate to Paul and Toni’s Children, Brenda’s Grandchildren.

    Shortly after Brenda’s death, and by her direction, the family found envelopes containing cash for the Grandchildren safely stored alongside the February Will.

    However, on 9 January 2019, Paul secretly applied for a Grant of Probate using the March Will. Upon a Grant being issued, Paul then began to close down Brenda’s bank accounts and put her property on the market for sale.

    Naturally, this came as quite a shock to Ann who subsequently lodged Court Proceedings on the belief that the signature on the March Will was not Brenda’s and was a forgery.

    The Wills Act 1837

    The leading legislation confirming the requirements to validly execute a Will remains Section 9 of the Wills Act 1837.

    The requirements are as follows:

    1. The Will must be in writing, signed by the Testator or by another person in his presence and by his direction;
    2. The Testator must intend to make a Will and by signing it, intend to bring it into effect;
    3. The Testator’s signature must be made in the presence of at least two witnesses; and
    4. Each witness must also sign the Will and acknowledge their signature in the presence of the Testator.

    Where point (2) is clearly in dispute, such as in this case, the Court relied upon a previous judgement made only a few years before (Face v Cunningham 2020). Notably, in that case, the Judge confirmed that the burden of proof would lie with Paul:

    “…where the forgery of a will is alleged, the then ultimate burden of proving that the will is not a forgery must rest on the party propounding the will”.

    In preparation for the Trial, both Ann and Paul instructed handwriting experts to provide their opinions on the conflicting signatures alleged to belong to Brenda.

    Ann’s expert concluded that in relation to the signature on the February Will “the possibility of another person writing that signature can be safely discounted”. Contrastingly, he believed it to be “very unlikely” that the signature on the March Will was also Brenda’s.

    Paul was compelled by Court Order to provide examples of his own handwriting such as driving licences and passports. These, though ostensibly sent to Ann’s Solicitors by Tracked Mail, never materialised, although an empty envelope sent by Recorded Delivery did.

    Paul’s own handwriting expert only believed that there was “moderate evidence” that the signature on the March Will was valid.

    Ultimately, the Court held that the March Will was indeed forged, likely by Paul himself. As a result, Paul’s Grant was revoked and Ann was permitted to obtain a new Grant of Probate on the basis of the February Will.

    We can help you

    If you have any concerns regarding a loved one’s Will and wish to challenge it, then please contact our Contested Wills, Trusts and Estates Team on 01823 625841.

    We handle a variety of disputes and issues surrounding Wills and Estates. We offer high-quality, cost-effective legal advice on such matters, with flexible funding arrangements such as Deferred Funding Arrangements and Conditional Fee Agreements (i.e. No-Win, No-Fee arrangements) being available.


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