Will forgery is unfortunately quite familiar to contentious probate solicitors and the court. The High Court recently looked at an interesting dispute over a suspected forged will, which we will look at in this article.
| How would I know if someone has forged a will?
There are several factors that might lead you to believe that a will has been forged. These include:
- the testator (the person making the will) has not included someone in the will that you would expect to be provided for, without reason
- the will benefits an individual substantially more than others and/or excludes others
- there are multiple wills that have been executed leading up to the testator’s death
- the testator’s signature is strange or unrecognisable
| What makes a valid will?
Before considering the position on forged wills, it is important to consider what makes a valid will. S9 Wills Act 1837 details the necessary elements needed for a valid will:
- The will must be in writing and signed by the testator or by another person in his presence and direction
- There must be intent to make a will; the testator must intend their signature to give effect to the will
- The signature is made or acknowledged by the testator in the presence of two or more witness at the same time.
- Each witness must sign the will and acknowledge his signature, in the presence of the testator (but not necessarily in the presence of any other witness).
| Rainey v Weller
On 5 August 2021, the High Court handed down judgment in the case of Rainey v Weller. Deputy Master Linwood described the case to be ‘another sad and bitter family dispute concerning wills.’
The Court considered whether the late Mrs Weller made one or two wills and whether she made each will with genuine intentions. The first will was made on 9 February 2018 and a second will was made on 5 March 2018. The court considered whether the March will revoked the February will.
In February 2018, Mrs Weller used solicitors Austin Ryder to execute her will. She expressed her wish to appoint Ann Rainey, her niece (and the claimant in the High Court case), as sole executrix and beneficiary of her estate. This February will was executed at the solicitors’ offices.
The First Defendant, Mr Paul Weller (Mrs Weller’s son), claimed that in March 2018, Mrs Weller asked him to prepare a will for her. On 5 March 2018, Paul claimed he did as he was instructed; obtained a template will online and filled it in on his home computer. He said he took a copy of the draft will and showed it to his mother. Paul told the Court that Mrs Weller read it and confirmed that this was what she wanted. This will appointed Paul as sole executor and divided the estate equally between Mrs Weller’s three grandchildren.
Following Mrs Weller’s death, Paul applied for Grant of Probate, using the second will. After seeing the second will, Ann instructed solicitors as she did not believe that the signature on the will was genuine, and she suspected someone had forged it. Ann issued proceedings and obtained expert handwriting evidence.
The Judge heard numerous witnesses and took into consideration the handwriting evidence. He found that Paul had forged the March will and Mrs Well had not executed it. The Judge provided the following reasons for his decision:
- It would have been highly improbable that Mrs Weller decided to change her mind in less than a month
- If she did decide to change it, it was most likely she would have returned to her solicitors who executed the February will.
- Paul did not mention the second will to any other family member, and he was at the centre of the second will.
- The handwriting expert evidence concluded that there was ‘moderate to strong evidence’ that Mrs Weller did not sign the March will and that someone had forged the signature.
As a result, the terms of the February will were upheld and Ann inherited the entirety of Mrs Weller’s estate.
| What to do if you’re involved in a dispute over a potentially forged will?
It is important to gather as much evidence as possible. You should obtain copies of all previous wills and attain details of who witnessed the wills and where they were executed. It is also important to instruct a solicitor as soon as possible. A solicitor can advise you on your prospects of success. And if instructed early may be able to resolve the issue before it escalates into a claim, saving you time and money.
Templates of wills are available online and in shops. However, it is always better to instruct a solicitor to write a will for you. There are many advantages of using a solicitor to prepare your will. One of these is that it will reduce the likelihood of disputes regarding the will’s validity after your death.
If you would like to discuss making a will, or a dispute regarding a will, our team can help. Call us on 0800 988 7756 for a free initial chat.