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What Do I Do If I Believe A Will Or Trust In My Family Is A Forgery?

Updated on
January 14, 2021
Article written by
Eugene Nassif

In this article, we discuss what happens if you believe a will or trust in your family is a fraud. We cover the following questions:

  • Suspicion of fraud
  • How do people forge testamentary documents?
  • How do I investigate potential forgery for probate fraud litigation?
  • Standing and Grounds for Probate Fraud
  • Red Flags Found within Forged Documents
  • Red flags in the document’s signature
  • Accomplices in a Trust Forgery

 

Questions often arise once family members have passed as to the contents of estate planning documents. Suspicions can be raised as to whether the family member who passed intended their estate to be what it was or whether the documents have been tampered with. If you believe documents from an estate have been forged, there are steps you can take to challenge it. 

 

Suspicion of fraud 

 

Most testators discuss the contents of their wills or trusts with their family members and beneficiaries before their passing or they make promises to their family about how they will divide their estate when the testamentary documents enter probate. However, despite this happening, surprises and confusion often arises after the testator passes. There may be a new will or trust with unusual signatures, or writing and language that seemingly contradicts the intentions of the testator prior to their passing. 

 

If you are one of those family members who believe you may have been entitled to something from the testator and are now suddenly left out, you may have to investigate whether the estate planning document has been tampered with through forgery and your inheritance was stolen. 

 

How do people forge testamentary documents? 

 

Forging testamentary documents is nothing new. It’s been happening throughout history, dating back to when probate courts were established. Forgers are usually relatives, friends, business partners or document drafters for the testator. These are people who are often close to the testator who have knowledge about the documents previously drafted and the intentions of the testator.  

 

Probate litigators will raise questions and will immediately raise issues as to fraud if one of the following things are found: 

  • Tracing or identical signatures from previous documents are on the will or trust 
  • If a DIY estate plan from an online or form source was made after formal documents were made by an attorney. 
  • If there is proof that the incapacitated testator’s hand was moved or aided to sign a will or trust 
  • If someone other than the testator was shown to have signed the documents on behalf of the testator 
  • If it is shown that the testator executed or modified their testamentary documents under false pretenses or deceit. 

 

How do I investigate potential forgery for probate fraud litigation? 

 

It is critical that you do not take the investigation of potential probate fraud into your own hands. You should not interrogate the heirs/beneficiaries named or the people you think committed the fraud. It is best to leave the investigation to the court system. 

 

Standing and Grounds for Probate Fraud 

 

You must have standing prior to contesting the estate plan on the basis that it was forgery. You must show that the illegitimate estate plan directly or indirectly harmed your own inheritance. Merely being upset with the testamentary documents is not enough to contest the will or trust’s legitimacy. 

 

Red Flags Found within Forged Documents 

 

After you have established grounds and standing to contest the will or trust, the investigation will next look at various red flags which might suggest the documents may be a forgery. Some examples include: 

  • Self-Made Will Language. Wills or estates that are created with a DIY website or form document have a strong potential for fraud, specifically through the copy and pasting of signatures into the document. 
  • Missing Pages. If pages of a will or trust are clearly missing (language changes between documents, it is clear something is missing), questions often arise as to fraud. 
  • Different or modified pages/text. If a majority of the document is printed on one type of paper and select pages are in a clearly different type of paper or a new piece of paper, suspicion arises. The same goes for unusual staple marks. If the document has clearly been stapled multiple times. Finally, if there are multiple strikeouts, use of whiteout, use of multiple types of ink or other corrections made to the document, suspicion may rise.  
  • Missing Legal Language. Estate documents can be valid without an attorney having drafted them. However, if legal language and formalities are clearly missing from a document, suspicion does arise. This is especially important if an attorney did draft the documents or if an attorney was consulted.  

 

Red flags in the document’s signature 

 

An obvious red flag with a will or estate are issues with the document’s signature. Substituted signatures, shaky or heavy signatures, irregular pen marks, missing fluidity or clear differences in signatures all raise suspicion.  

 

Proving signatures are false typically require expert analysis. These handwriting experts will compare the signature and handwriting from the will or estate document with other known handwriting from the testator. They will make a determination as to whether the signature or handwriting is from the testator. These determinations will then be provided to the court either through an expert report or testimony from the expert.  

 

Accomplices in a Trust Forgery

 

A counterfeit will or trust needs two witness attestations before the person committing fraud can submit the documents to probate. This legal obligation often becomes the biggest hurdle for these people trying to commit fraud.  

 

In the probate fraud case, it will be important to locate these witnesses listed on the document you believe is counterfeit and question them as to whether they oversaw the execution. If evidence shows the witnesses are fraudulent, the court will set aside the will or trust in summary judgment. Additionally, if the witnesses are correct, they can attest as to various aspects of the will or estate, specifically the document type, how it was signed, ink used in the signature, pages attached to the document, etc.  


What Do I Do If I Believe A Will Or Trust In My Family Is A Forgery?
Author

Eugene Nassif

Eugene Nassif is an associate attorney in Des Moines, Iowa. His primary focus is in business and civil litigation matters.

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