Fake News is Old News, Fake Wills New News...
Garry Bushell reviews Fake Britain episode, exploring: Who fakes Wills? Are there warning signs? Can you take preventative actions?
BBC TV this week exposed the problem of fraudulent Wills. Fake Britain presenter Matt Allwright looked into the case of Stephen Crisp, a man who was nearly cheated out of his entire inheritance by his own father, Nigel. A few months before he died, Stephen's grandfather Robert, known as Bob, wrote a will dividing his estate between his daughter and Stephen, taking the precaution of giving both of them a copy. Bob had fallen out with Nigel, and had brought his grandson up himself.
Rather than accept his dad's decision, Nigel forged a handwritten will purporting to be Bob's final testament which he claimed to have found in a drawer.
The fake Will left all of Bob's estate, worth more than £100,000, to Nigel's wife, Jennifer.
Nigel persuaded her to use it to withdraw about £10,000 from his late father's bank account.
Stephen's suspicions were aroused when he discovered that his grandfather's account had been cleaned out, and that his father had sold furniture from the family home — including items that had been left to him.
Had Nigel Crisp been successful, he would have stood to make £123,000 clear profit from the scam.
He was in the process of trying to flog Bob's house, valued at about £135,000, when family members took their concerns about the new will to the police who duly discovered it to be a fake.
Mercifully a handwriting expert quickly established that it had been written by Nigel and not by Bob.
In a police interview, Crisp initially claimed that his Dad was "always making Wills" and that he'd found the will in an envelope in a drawer. But he later he admitted making a false instrument, and Jennifer admitted using a false instrument with intent.
Norwich Crown Court heard that Nigel Crisp had previous convictions for fraud. He received 22 months suspended for two years — he was spared prison only on medical grounds.
Jennifer, described as a vulnerable person, got a three-month sentence suspended for nine months, and was ordered to attend a wellbeing course for six months under supervision.
As Allwright said on TV: "Even a Will can be fake and when it is it can devastate the family involved."
Forged Will cases are increasingly common. Earlier this year, a high-flying London accountant was found to have forged his dead mother's Will in a bid to take control of a large slice in his families multi-million pound business.
Girish Patel, 65, from north London, tricked his dying mum into signing a blank document which he then added a Will to.
He was only caught out when minute forensic analysis revealed the faint indentation of her signature elsewhere on the paper, suggesting that she'd signed the sheet while putting her name to several blank documents, one on top of the other, for use in the family businesses.
At the High Court in London, Judge Andrew Simmonds QC found the will to be a forgery, meaning a previous Will — leaving everything to his brother Yashwant — was re-instated.
Girish Patel was slapped with legal bills totalling an estimated £1.3million.
So who might commit this kind of fraud?
The three main culprits involved in probate fraud are relatives, carers, and attorneys.
- Relatives of the deceased are often named as an executor in probate. As they have access to the deceased's property and paperwork, it is relatively easy for them to commit fraud.
- Carers have been known to cheat vulnerable people. They are often placed in a position of responsibility and there are many recorded cases of dishonest carers pressurising dying people to change their Will.
It is also sadly quite common for someone who had been granted lasting power of attorney to be accused of mismanaging funds.
What are the warning signs?
Here is what experts say you should watch out for if you are concerned about potential probate fraud:
- Sudden changes to the Will
- Unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts made shortly before death
- Unexpected transfers of money or property
- Valuable items going missing
- The addition of a third party's name to a bank account
How can you prevent someone from faking your Will?
It's impossible to stop someone trying to falsify a Will, however there are ways to safeguard your real will.
You have to:
- Make sure you have a fully legal Will in place that has been checked and verified by a solicitor or will writing company
- Store your Will with the Will provider
- If you wish to write someone out of your Will, get a letter of wishes added to it, specifically explaining why you are leaving them out
- Make sure you let your family know where your Will is being stored
Garry Bushell, April 2016