Challenging A Forged Last Will And Testament: Handwriting Experts Vs Eyewitnesses in Will Contests

Posted By on October 21, 2015

It should go without saying, but a Last Will and Testament has to be signed by the person making the will in order for the will to be effective — an unsigned will isn’t valid in Florida. In fact, Florida Statute 732.502 requires the following for a will to be valid here:

Execution of wills.—Every will must be in writing and executed as follows:
(1)(a) Testator’s signature.—
1. The testator must sign the will at the end; or
2. The testator’s name must be subscribed at the end of the will by some other person in the testator’s presence and by the testator’s direction.

However, there are times when the signature on the Last Will and Testament deposited with the court seems suspicious. There may be loved ones, business associates or con artists so familiar with the decedent’s handwriting and signature that they may be convinced that there’s been some wrongdoing involved with the execution of the will. If those forgery suspicions are strong enough, and other circumstances suggest something is not right, one of the interested parties to the estate can commence a will contest to prevent the admission of the will to probate.

 

How To Establish That A Florida Will Has Been Forged?

In Florida, a will contest is an actual lawsuit, and those contesting a will must bring forth evidence to prove their case just like any other lawsuit. They have to provide witnesses and other evidence to support their claims. In a will contest alleging forgery of the Last Will and Testament, the will contestants usually present the testimony of a handwriting expert who gives his or her professional opinion that the signature on the will is a fake and/or forgery.

In Florida, the testimony of an independent third-party handwriting expert is enough to prove a forgery. However, the expert opinions are not set in stone. It is possible for those seeking to admit the will, and to fight against the claims of forgery, to win even if there are experts testifying that the decedent’s signature is a forgery.

A probate judge can hear and accept the eyewitness testimony of those who saw the decedent sign that Last Will and Testament over the expert opinions of a handwriting expert (or several experts). In this situation, two eyewitnesses will be needed to give their testimony. And their testimony about the signature being valid must be considered credible to the judge.

If those eyewitnesses give any conflicting statements regarding the circumstances surrounding the decedent signing the will presented to the court, then their testimony won’t be strong enough to prevail over the opinions of the handwriting experts. Inconsistencies and contradictions in the eyewitness testimony can destroy their credibility, likely causing the judge to give little or no weight to their testimony.

The Case of the Suddenly Discovered Will Behind a Picture

In the unique case of Mauldin v. Reel, 56 So. 2d 918 (Fla. 1951), the Last Will and Testament of Julia C. Kearney was found to be a forgery by a Dade County judge, whose decision was subsequently affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court on appeal. In that case, Julia Kearney lived alone in Miami for many years as a recluse who appeared to have very little money. However, after she passed away it was discovered that Julia Kearney had a significant amount of securities in her possession ($120,000 worth, in 1948 dollars).

The local news media picked up the story of “The Rich Recluse” and it gained traction — soon the story of the lonely woman who died in poverty while having riches in securities right there in her home went viral. It was carried in newspapers all over the world, and (to no surprise) soon all sorts of people were claiming to be heirs of the mysterious Ms. Kearney. Over 80 people from all over the globe were filing their claims with the Miami probate clerk — but these all filtered down to three sets of claimants who were serious in claiming entitlement to the Kearney Estate. They were:

1. Julia’s brothers and sisters;
2. Mary Moxley Calton, alleged to be Julia’s daughter; and
3. Bernice Mauldin, alleged to be Julia’s niece.

Hearings were held in the probate court where lots of people took the stand to give evidence. The probate judge had the job of sifting through everything and figuring out who really was a legal heir to the decedent and who was not. Eventually, Mary Calton was found not to be her daughter, and Bernice Mauldin was found not to be her niece.

Two months later, after the judge had ruled against her, Bernice Mauldin reappeared before the court — this time, with a will. She argued that the document was the Last Will and Testament of her Aunt Julia — and that she had found it stashed behind a picture. In this newly discovered will, Mary Moxley Calton was identified as “the blood daughter” of Julia Kearney and named as the sole beneficiary, with Bernice Mauldin as the executrix.

Curiously, at the same time, the judge was presented with ANOTHER will that had “popped up,” purporting to also be the Last Will and Testament of Julia Kearney.

The judge held more hearings, heard more testimony, and ruled that both the documents were forgeries. Bernice Mauldin appealed this decision — and lost.

According to the Florida Supreme Court, in an opinion that has been widely referenced in Florida will contests based on forgery, “[w]hile undoubtedly in a proper case the testimony of expert witnesses ought not to prevail in the face of direct and credible evidence to the contrary, there is no such situation here.”

Even though Bernice Mauldin did provide people to testify that they were eyewitnesses to Julia Kearney signing the will discovered by Bernice behind a picture, that was not enough.

First, the Supreme Court pointed out there were several handwriting experts who found the signature of Julia Kearney on this document to be a forgery. Their integrity as independent third party professionals was recognized by the court.

Second, not only did the timing and circumstances of the sudden discovery of this document make the court suspicious of its authenticity, there were enough inconsistencies and contradictions in the testimony of the proponents of the will to confirm that the trial judge had been correct to rule it forged.

“From our examination of the record, we think there can be no question that this was the correct decision.”

Do You Suspect A Last Will And Testament Has Been Forged?

If you or a loved one suspects that the signature on a will being admitted to probate is a fake or forged document, then it is a good idea to seek the advice of a Florida probate lawyer to determine what actions are best to take to deal with the situation.  Call Sackrin & Tolchinsky, P.A. today for a free initial consultation to answer any questions you may have.

For more information check out our probate litigation page.

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Picture of Larry TolchinskyDo you have questions or comments? Then please feel free to send Larry an email or call him now at (954) 458-8655.

 

 

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