- You can contest a counterfeit estate planning document in probate if you have a good-faith belief that someone forged it or committed probate fraud when soliciting its execution.
- Challengers must hold standing and grounds to move their forgery arguments forward in court.
- Probate fraud investigators and handwriting experts may gather the requisite forgery evidence required for presentation at trial
Will and Trust Forgery Suspicion
Most testators disclose the contents of their will or trust with beneficiaries before passing away, or they promise descendants that they’ll divide estate assets fairly when their testamentary documents enter probate.
Yet every so often, surprises and confusion among successors surface after a new will or trust crops up with unusual signatures and a writing that completely contradicts the promises made to them before the testator’s death.
If you’re one of those heirs, you may have to investigate the estate planning document to discover whether someone has stolen your inheritance by committing forgery.
How Fraudsters Forge Testamentary Documents
People have been forging wills and trusts since way back when judges first allowed them into probate courts. A forger is usually the decedent’s relative, spouse, fiduciary, friend, business partner or any individual who intentionally drafts counterfeit documents to acquire a financial interest in the testator’s estate during probate.
Counterfeiters can get very creative when forging estate plans. Seasoned probate litigators however will presume a legal instrument is fraudulent when it’s apparent that a fraudster:
- Used the testator’s actual signature as a template to trace over his/her endorsement onto a forged will or trust.
- Hired an expert forger to sign the testator’s name freestyle on the false testamentary document.
- Used a computer to copy and paste the deceased’s signature onto a do-it-yourself estate plan.
- Moved an incapacitated testator’s hand to simulate his/her signature on a fake will or trust.
- Exerted false pretenses or deceit to persuade a vulnerable testator into executing or modifying his/her testamentary documents.
Investigating Forgeries in Probate Fraud Litigation
You don’t have to interrogate every heir/beneficiary named in the will or trust to investigate a forgery. The probate fraud lawyers at Iowa Probate Litigation actually warn against this practice so challengers don’t kindle a fraudster’s suspicions before discovery starts.
Standing and Grounds
You must first verify standing before contesting the forgery of which you will hold if the illegitimate estate plan directly or indirectly harms your inheritance.
Your next step is to determine if you have grounds to take legal action. Remember that a mere discord with the testamentary document’s provisions is not enough to contest a will or trust’s legitimacy.
For example: You and your cousin actually read your uncle’s will two years before he passed away, which looked very different from the document presented in probate—in this case, you’ll have good faith grounds to challenge the new will, especially if your cousin is willing to testify on your behalf.
Red Flags Found in Forged Document
After your estate dispute attorney establishes grounds and standing to contest the will or trust, work closely with his/her discovery team to investigate any of the following red flags that suggest the document in probate may be a forgery.
- Self-Made Will Language. There are many do-it-yourself internet websites that offer the public virtual tools to draft and execute wills without an attorney’s assistance—sadly, these so-called “self-made” estate plans are also highly susceptible to cut-and-paste signature fraud.
- Missing Pages. When pages in wills and trusts are noticeably missing or when the document suggests that someone has replaced old pages with new ones, forgery probate fraud lawsuits often follow.
- Diverse Page Textures. The pages of a forty-year-old estate planning document should all bear the same hue, weight and age. Amateur fraudsters often overlook this fact when printing new pages into a counterfeit will or trust.
- Unusual Staple Marks. Staple removal and replacement made on old document paper can leave unusual marks, larger holes, and even microscopic rust stains.
- Unorthodox Corrections. People make mistakes while drafting estate plans, and testators may legitimately alter their testamentary documents before passing away. Such corrections and modifications however should only appear in redrafts and codicils (supplementary documents)—original testamentary documents with noticeable strikeouts, erasures, deletions or liquid paper corrections in them are serious red flags.
- Missing Legal Jargon. An estate planning document can be valid despite a lawyer not drafting it. Every will or trust however should contain legal formalities that reveal the testator’s intent. Many amateur forged documents lack such requisite legal vocabulary.
Signature Red Flags and Professional Analysis
Sometimes when you examine the endorsements in a forged testamentary document, you get the impression that “the signatures just aren’t right.” To reiterate, having a mere suspension is insufficient grounds to bring legal action—you’ll need evidence to support your forgery allegations.
Signature red flags require further analysis and expert scrutiny to determine if the testator actually signed the will or trust in probate—let’s have a look at a few:
- Signature Substitution—the signature is completely different from ones found on other verified documents. Sometimes fraudsters are just careless or take a chance on drafting obvious forgeries, hoping that no one will challenge them.
- Heavy, Shaky Signatures—a bulky or wavy endorsement with a steady thickness that arises when fraudsters use the testator’s valid signature as a template to trace his/her name onto a forged estate planning instrument. These anomalies surface when the counterfeiter’s hand shakes while forcefully and slowly tracing the endorsement (which is opposite from the softer and faster signatures naturally found on legitimate documents).
- Faulty Handwriting Skills—a non-authentic looking signature that differs from an older person’s clean handwriting skills. Most people from Generations X,Y, Z and Millennials never learned to handwrite in school (since they did most homework on a computer). A young counterfeiter’s signature may therefore possess calligraphy inconsistencies and poor penmanship due to lack of training.
- Irregular Pen Marks—forced strokes or unnatural lines that appear when fraudsters stop their signage motion, forget the testator’s name or overlook how the testator begins, connects and ends the letters in his/her name.
- Missing Fluidity—endorsements lacking speed and flow. If the testator was healthy and without a physical impairment, his/her signature on the document should appear natural and fluid.
Looking for Accomplices
Counterfeit wills and trusts need two witness attestations before fraudsters can submit them to probate. This legal obligation is often the forger’s biggest hurdle to overcome because he/she will either have to make up witness signatures or collude with two separate individuals to subscribe to the forged estate plan.
Your probate litigator will locate the witnesses listed on the counterfeit document to verify whether they oversaw the execution. If evidence proves the witnesses are imposters, the courts will set aside the will or trust in summary judgment. On the other hand, you may have to bring a separate improper execution lawsuit if the witnesses are real but testify they never saw the testator sign his/her estate plan.
Forensic Signature Analysis
To prevail in probate fraud litigation alleging forgery, you will need to produce expert testimony from a professional handwriting analyst.
This individual compares the handwritten portions of the will or trust and its signatures with a “catalog of writings” from the testator—the courts have consistently held that handwriting comparisons from competent witnesses are admissible and necessary for exposing forged estate planning documents.
Your handwriting expert will likewise need your assistance when assembling the catalog which should include the deceased’s handwritten letters and authentic signings taken from legal documents, bank checks, deeds, or signed contracts originating from the same time period as the date found on the forged document in controversy.
Computer-aided forensic science is also available for analyzing signatures and handwriting. Here, the professional scans high-quality images from the counterfeit document and magnifies them over a hundred times on a computer to find obvious signs of forgery. Sometimes inverting a signature’s colors or applying filters to fake endorsements can show the writing is a forgery as well.
When you hold standing to bring probate fraud litigation with complaints of forgery, you’ll need a competent estate dispute attorney investigator at your side who has a handwriting expert on his/her team to expose the fraud.
You must also be willing to engage in discovery efforts while your advocates gather as much physical evidence as possible to support your lawsuit should it head to court.