Will disputes: The forgery of a will

In a recent case, the court dismissed a son’s claim to prove a will and instead ordered that the will that he relied upon was a forgery.

Prabhavati Patel (“the Deceased”) died on 29 September 2011. One of the Deceased’s sons, Girish Patel, issued a claim to prove the Deceased’s latest will which was dated 23 June 2005, under which Girish was named as sole executor and beneficiary. At the same time, Girish also sought an order that the grant of probate obtained in respect of the Deceased’s earlier 1986 will be revoked. The Deceased’s older son Yashwant Patel (the Defendant in these proceedings) was named as sole beneficiary under the 1986 will.

Yashwant Patel lodged a defence disputing the 2005 will on the grounds that it was a forgery.

The brothers had already been parties to a long-running and hostile multi jurisdiction dispute involving the family business which was considered to be worth approximately 200m US dollars.  Allegations had been made in those proceedings that Girish had been involved in the forgery of documents supporting his case.

Whilst giving evidence about the circumstances in which the 2005 will was prepared and executed,  Girish said that his mother visited him in 2005 and said that she wanted to make a will leaving everything to Girish (in order that he could make charitable donations in her name). Girish said that he wrote out a manuscript will which was later typed up by his secretary in English. Girish said that his mother had told him that she had not made any prior wills.

Girish said that he then read out the will to his mother in front of two witnesses and gave his mother a brief oral explanation in Gujarati of the effect of each clause in the will. He says that his mother approved the terms of the will and then signed the will in the presence of the two witnesses.

Yashwant gave evidence that the family members had previously adopted a practice in the 1990’s of using blank pre-signed letters to facilitate business formalities in the course of the family business.

Yashwant contended that this previous practice had enabled Girish to fabricate the 2005 will. Yashwant stated that Girish had used a corporate letterhead pre-signed by his mother, he had cut off the top and bottom to remove references to the family business and then printed the will onto that sheet of paper so that it fitted around his mother’s pre-printed signature. He further contented that Girish had then coerced the witnesses to sign this document, falsely representing that they had witnessed the Deceased's signature.

The court considered evidence from a handwriting expert who concluded that the signature on the will was not in keeping with the Deceased’s style in 2005, and likely dated from 2001 or earlier.

Whilst the standard of proof in these types of cases is “the balance of probabilities”, the judge in this case referred to the judgment in the case oof Re H (Minors) [1996] AC 563 and, in particular, the statement by Lord Nicholls that:

“the more serious the allegation the less likely it is that the event occurred and, hence, the stronger should be the evidence before the court concludes that the allegation is established on the balance of probability”

The amount of evidence against Girish in the present case was overwhelming. The court concluded that the two witnesses to the will had lied to the court and as there was no independent evidence to corroborate Girish’s story the judge therefore dismissed Girish’s claim and ruled that the 2005 will was, in fact, a forgery. This meant that the 1986 will was upheld.

In claims relating to disputed wills, including claims involving forgery or fraud, it is essential that specialist independent advice is taken at an early stage.

Should you wish to discuss a disputed will or contentious probate dispute please do not hesitate to contact our contentious probate team on 01902 424927. Alternatively, you can e-mail us at contentiousprobate@georgegreen.co.uk providing a brief summary of the issues you wish to discuss with us, along with your contact details.