24 April, 2023
Eustace Fitzgerald Watts died in 2008, leaving a Will dated 8 February 2000. The Will appointed Eustace's wife, Jobyna Watts, as his executrix and the sole beneficiary of his estate. The Will was duly executed and witnessed by a solicitor and a legal secretary at a local law firm.
One of Eustace's and Jobyna's sons, Carlton Watts, alleged that his father did not execute the Will and that the signature was a forgery. His claim was supported by evidence provided by a handwriting expert, Douglas Cobb. Carlton further alleged that his late father had made a Will in 1994 under which he was to benefit from a third of the Estate, together with his mother and her other son.
Carlton's position was that his 92 year old mother, who was struggling with her memory, (or someone acting for her) had forged the Will to ensure that his father's Estate all passed to her. After his father's death, Carlton reported his mother to the police and wanted to pursue a prosecution for fraud and money laundering. The police investigated the complaints but took no further action.
Due to the fact that the Will included a valid attestation clause, the burden of proof was on Carlton. The handwriting expert, Douglas, looked for resemblances between Jobyna's signature and the signature on the disputed Will. However, Master Clark was not happy with Douglas' analysis, because he had no samples of the deceased's signature and handwriting, and only one example of Jobyna's handwriting, stating "He then only considers similarities in the alignment of the lettering of this signature and the deceased's signature." Master Clark went on further to say: "No consideration is given, or analysis undertaken, of samples of the deceased's handwriting and signatures."
Jobyna also instructed a handwriting expert, Michael Handy. Michael's report referred to 18 samples of Eustace's handwriting and signatures and that of Jobyna, over a 65-year period. Michael identified natural variations and made a forensic assessment of Eustace's and the mother's handwriting and signatures. Michael concluded that there were no significant differences between Eustace's disputed signature on the Will and the reference signatures that had been examined.
Sarah Evans, the solicitor who had taken the instructions for the deceased's last Will and had arranged and witnessed its execution in 2000, also gave evidence. Sarah was clear in her recollection of the deceased, who had been a long-standing client of the firm. Sarah remembered the deceased's instructions being clear and consistent, stating that his surviving spouse was to be the sole beneficiary and that Carlton was not to inherit anything if Jobyna were to survive him. Sarah also remembered the deceased attending her office and signing the 2000 Will.
Carlton ultimately failed to establish that his mother forged the Will and Master Clark rejected the conclusions of Douglas Cobb, instead accepting the testimony of Sarah Evans and Michael Handy. It was found that the Will was genuine.
This case reminds us of the importance of handwriting evidence where forgery is alleged. Specifically, clear and detailed instructions with as many examples as possible of the deceased's handwriting are crucial to an expert report that holds weight at trial. However, whilst the evidence of a handwriting expert is important, it will rarely take precedence over that of the attesting witnesses, such as Sarah Evans in this case.
If you have any concerns about a fraudulent Will, please call a member of the team on the details below who will be able to assist you further.
For more information contact Olivia Jack in our Contesting a Will department via email or phone on 0333 207 1130. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.
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