Earlier this year, the High Court handed down judgment in the high-profile case of Watts v Watts  EWHC 679 (Ch) concerning an allegedly forged will, i.e. a form fraud. The decision highlights the difficulties in bringing a claim of this type, with its high burden of proof and reminds us of the importance (and benefits) of instructing a solicitor to prepare your will.
Mr E Watts died in 2008, leaving a Will dated 8 February 2000 (the ‘Will’). The Will appointed his wife, Mrs J Watts (mother), as his executrix and the sole beneficiary of his estate. The Will was duly executed and witnessed by a secretary and a legal secretary at a local law firm.
Mr C Watts (son) brought a claim against his mother alleging she had forged her late husband’s Will – in particular that his father did not execute the Will and the signature was forged. He also specifically alleged the mother had used the will of his brother, Mr F Watts, produced and witnessed by a solicitor two weeks apart – as a template to forge the Will. The son sought to argue his late father had made a will in 1994 under which he was to benefit from a third of the estate.
The Will had a valid attestation clause, which meant the burden of proof was on the son to demonstrate forgery had taken place. He relied on the expert evidence of a handwriting expert, particularly looking at resemblances between the mother’s signature and the signature on the allegedly forged Will – this evidence was limited. The mother also appointed her own handwriting expert who relied on multiple samples of the deceased and the mother’s respective handwriting and signatures over a 65-year period.
The mother also relied on witness evidence from the solicitor who had taken instructions for the deceased’s Will and had arranged and witnessed its execution. She clearly recalled: (i) the deceased’s instructions being clear and consistent and specifically instructing his surviving spouse to be the sole beneficiary and for the son not to inherit anything if the mother survived him and (ii) the deceased attending the office and signing the Will.
The Judge dismissed the son’s claim on the basis he had failed to establish that his mother had forged the Will. He accepted the evidence of the solicitor witness and the mother’s expert and therefore held that the Will was genuine.
Seeking to challenge a will on the basis of forgery is notoriously difficult, as it involves an allegation of a form of fraud where the standard of proof is very high and required the son to prove the forgery took place. The outcome of this case, therefore, provides a clear reminder of the importance and benefit of instructing a solicitor to prepare, execute and witness your will, as the Judge was highly persuaded by the solicitor’s evidence in this case (remember solicitors must comply with high professional standards and are officers of the court). In cases where forgery is central to the claim, this case also highlights the importance of thorough handwriting evidence by an experienced handwriting analyst.
If you intend to challenge a will based on alleged forgery, it is critical to take legal advice as early as possible and to instruct an experienced expert. Please get in touch with our highly experienced Contentious Trusts & Probate team.
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