A step too far – a warning for Private Prosecutors
The case of a young widow who faked the will of her late husband has been widely reported in the national press this week (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/crime/wife-tried-to-land-late-husbands-600k-estate-with-ridiculous-forged-will-a3533026.html
Marsha Henderson married Newton Davies in 2004 when he was 76 and she was in her twenties. When Mr Davies died in 2013, he left a pecuniary legacy of £25,000 to his young wife with the remainder of his £600,000 estate passing to his only daughter and a close friend. Ms Henderson subsequently claimed that she had found a more recent will hidden inside a discarded bag of Dorito crisps in the attic of Mr Davies’ west London home under which she inherited £550,000.
The challenge mounted by Ms Henderson was dismissed by Judge Nigel Gerald, sitting at the Mayor’s and City of London Court, who declared the forged will to be invalid. He found the most obvious error to be that the forged document referred to it being “her” last will rather than “his” and in circumstances whereby the deceased was a man this was not an inconsequential defect. Judge Nigel Gerard said that the story concocted by Ms Henderson was “ridiculous”.
A forged or fraudulent will is one of the grounds for contesting a will. As in this case, the will might have been forged in its entirety or it could simply be that the signature of the person making the will has been forged. A will could be fraudulent if the deceased has made a bequest to a beneficiary on the basis of misrepresentations made by another person.
Should a will challenge be successful on the grounds of forgery or fraud, the will will be declared invalid. The deceased’s estate will then be distributed in accordance with a previous valid will or, if there is no earlier will, then the estate will be distributed pursuant to the Intestacy Rules.
Challenging a will solely on the basis of a fraud is difficult, not least because the deceased is likely to be the only first hand witness and obviously not able to give evidence. It should however be borne in mind that it might still be possible to challenge the will on another ground (most likely that the deceased did not have the requisite knowledge and approval of the contents of the will).
Forgery is a form of fraud so the burden of proof is harder to discharge than that which is normally required when challenging the validity of a will. Consequently, it is extremely important that an assessment is made as to the strength of the evidence before contesting a will on this basis.
It has been reported that in the Henderson/Davies case a handwriting expert was instructed who observed “a lack of natural fluidity”. It is often necessary to instruct a handwriting expect in these types of claims to determine whether the testator’s signature is genuine. The expert will look at the will alongside a number of the deceased’s signatures in order to reach a conclusion for the court (who will then consider the expert’s report alongside witness evidence).
Things to look for if you are concerned that a will might be forged or fraudulent are:
There are no time limits for contesting fraudulent wills but you should not delay in bringing a claim.
Should you wish to discuss a disputed Will or Trust, please do not hesitate to contact our Wills, Trusts and Inheritance Disputes team.
Alternatively, please visit our Wills, Trusts and Inheritance webpage, or for more information, read our frequently asked questions on wills, trusts and inheritance disputes.
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