If you suspect a forged will, it is probably because the will was found in suspicious circumstances and something feels not right about it. A good place for you to start is to take a copy of the will to an estate lawyer. We see wills in court all the time and we also make wills, so we have a natural feel for what a real one should look like, as well as the experience to tell which will is a forgery.
Here are some of the red flags that point to possible will forgery:
- the will is made without an attorney (attorney name does not appear on the will)
- missing pages or pages are misplaced or replaced
- the paper differs in shade, weight or age on some pages
- removed staples, signs of staple holes or staple rust in the location of the removed old staples
- white out, corrections or additions in the text
- a suspicious signature
“The Smoking Gun” – A suspicious-looking signature is “the smoking gun” of a forged will. Criminals forge signatures by either tracing an original signature or by practicing the original signature. The likeness of a forged signature to the real signature varies, from looking just the real thing to looking nothing like the real signature at all.
Assembling a “Catalog” – When we set out to prove that a signature on a will is forged, one of the techniques we use is called “assembling a catalog.” We assemble a catalog of signatures that we think are the decedent’s authentic signatures from the same time period to compare to the signature that is allegedly a forgery. We get those signatures from other legal documents, checks, etc. that the decedent signed. The more signatures, the better, to compensate for different inks, pens, time of day and other variables.
Unfortunately, sometimes we end up assembling a catalog of signatures that are inconsistent from document to document, making it harder to show that the signature on the will deviates from the decedent’s “standard” signature. Another problem that may come up is when the authenticity of the “catalog” signatures can also be in question, such as when grown children sign their elderly parents’ checks. But in most cases, a catalog is a good point of reference in comparing a suspect signature to the decedent’s previous signatures that we know to be authentic.
Computer-Aided Analysis – In a forensic analysis of a signature, handwriting experts take a high-quality photograph of the signature and magnify the signature on a computer. Sometimes just magnifying a signature makes a forgery obvious. Other times, reversing the colors (white is black and black is white) or applying a filter makes a forgery really stand out. This graphic display is important when trying to convince a jury that a signature is a forgery.
Signs of a Forged Will
When you see a forged will, you often have a feeling that something “doesn’t feel right” but you can’t quite put your finger on it. This “not right” feeling is usually produced by a number of red flags:
- Completely Different Signature. The signature on the will is completely different than any verified signature of the decedent. There’s no other signature that looks like this one in our “catalog” of confirmed valid signatures. Hey, some people just take a chance, hoping that no one is going to challenge the will, and do an outright forgery that doesn’t even look like the real signature.
- Thickness is Constant. The signature maintains a constant pressure, making every stroke or line the same thickness. This points to the signature possibly being traced. The forger may have used a light-box or have simply placed a paper with the authentic signature on a window, placed the forged document on that paper and traced the real signature to make the forged one. Constant pressure is seen with someone who writes slowly, slower than the person who wrote the real signature would have signed.
- Unnatural Lines. Some signatures may be complex, and the fabricator may not know the motion to get the signing done. The fabricator may not know the correct way to sign. The fabricator doesn’t know where the real signer would start letters, connect them, end them. Not knowing how the decedent signed can produce unnatural strokes or lines that appear to be confusing.
- Lack of Handwriting Proficiency. Younger people were brought up in a school system that did not emphasize handwriting skills. They have less of a chance of practicing handwriting since most writing in the past twenty years was done on a computer. So the older a will writer is, the better their handwriting skills. When a signature of an older decedent is forged by a member of the generation after them, you may be able to see the inconsistencies. Younger people just don’t have the handwriting training and practice to pull off an authentic-looking signature of an older person.
- Wavy, fuzzy or shaky lines. Unsure lines are a sign that a signature is done at a slow speed. This will be evident throughout the signature and will be seen clearly. Wavy or shaky lines are inconsistent with a natural signature. Some people have a medical condition where their hands tremor and shake. Shakiness due to illness or advanced age would be consistent with the rest of the signatures in the catalog that you would have assembled.
- Markings around the signature. Depending on what they look like, markings around a signature may point to a forgery method.
- Signature is missing fluidity. Speed and fluidity should be accounted for. When examining a signature for forgery, it is important to look if it looks fluid and natural. If a signature doesn’t have those things, it’s counted as an inconsistency. Sometimes you need to go by feel, and take it from there.
People’s signatures are not as unique as they used to be. The more hand-writing gets out of fashion, the more people’s hand-writing skills are deteriorating. There used to be individual hand-writing styles, and that individuality is getting lost with the lack of proficiency. Most people don’t even use script anymore, but print their letters instead. Handwriting is starting to look more and more uniform and is losing its individuality. This adversely affects the ability of an expert to prove a forged signature.
A will prepared without an attorney is more likely to be a forgery than a will where an attorney was involved. If the will that you are examining does not have an attorney’s name on it, such as a form will purchased in an office supplies store or downloaded off the internet, the chance of forgery is greater. An attorney-supervised will would have the estate attorney’s name and would have a notarized self-proving affidavit of the witnesses who attested the will. While it is still possible for someone to make a fake ID and appear at an attorney’s office claiming to be the decedent, forgery is less likely when the will is supervised by an attorney.
Non-Signature Related Forgery Signs
Not all forgery has to do with a signature. We have pointed out some red flags, such as manipulated pages and removed staples. Watch out for a will that is touched up, as in with liquid paper or white-out, or has erasures or other signs of manipulation. Such “corrections” are sloppy and make the will look unnatural and suspicious. Modifications made after the will was made are invalid, but it’s often hard to tell if the modifications were made before the will was signed or after the will was signed, so the court will probably look at just the original pre-modifications part of the will unless the lawyer who made it will testify that he made the corrections before the will was signed.
Improper Will Execution – If a will is forged, that usually means that the will was made without the formalities required for a valid will, such as the decedent declaring it to be their last will and testament and having two witnesses. So in addition to suing for forgery, we’d also sue for improper execution, which gives us more options in setting aside the will.
If you are affected by a will that you suspect to be a forgery, call our New York law firm for a free phone consultation. We can be reached at (212) 233-1233.