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If there’s a (valid) Will…there’s a way

A photo of Noel McNicholas
23rd February 2023

Forgery and Wills

On 2 February 2023, Stewart Pearman was jailed for 5 years and 3 months for forging his late friend’s Will. 75-year-old Mr Pearman had been bequeathed £25,000 by his friend in her Will made in 2014. Shortly before her death, she signed a document which he titled ‘Letter of Wishes’ that declared him to be the sole executor and main beneficiary of her Estate. As a result, Pearman was due to inherit over £2.1m which would otherwise have passed under the terms of the 2014 Will to an air ambulance charity. Mr Pearman persuaded two associates to confirm that the Letter of Wishes was signed by the Deceased in their presence. The Deceased’s GP later expressed his doubt concerning the Deceased’s testamentary capacity at that time. In any event, the witnesses subsequently admitted they signed after the Deceased had died, meaning not only that the Letter of Wishes was invalid but that they had made false statements under oath to the court. They were both given sentences of 4 months suspended for 12 months and 60 hours of community service.

The CPS commented that Pearman had “betrayed a friendship of 25 years and abused his position of trust as an executor of a dying lady’s will, for his own benefit”. It is instances like this which demonstrate the relative ease by which a testator can be manipulated to line the own pockets of their perpetrator. Mr Pearman will have time to reflect on these matters but it does draw attention to the dangers of dealing with testamentary matters on a more informal basis.

The dangers of DIY Wills

Mr Pearman felt confident to forge the Letter of Wishes because there was no oversight in the process. And that is the inherent danger of DIY Wills. You need only set foot in well-known high street retailers to find Will kits being sold for under £20. That’s quite a tempting price when a standard Will might be £350 plus VAT or more. But one must bear in mind the tremendous power and scope of a Will. It deals with hugely important matters such as disposing of everything you may have worked for and other very important matters such as potentially who will look after minor children, what your funeral arrangements might be and of course who gets what and making it all as tax efficient as possible.

Under normal circumstances - and providing one knows what they are doing - a Will kit can occasionally be appropriate. But the danger is that many don’t know of the potential problems which can inadvertently arise. The most common problem concerns witnessing the Will. Under section 9 Wills Act 1837, a Will has to be:

  • In writing;
  • Signed by the testator; and
  • Signed by two witnesses present at the same time in the presence of the testator.

The two witnesses cannot be a beneficiary or married to a named beneficiary. By this logic, they are required to be ‘independent’ and to have no interest in the Will. Reflecting on the above legal requirements, it is easy to anticipate the frequency by which DIY Wills are found to be invalid. Wills drafted in this fashion are of particular concern to legal professionals given that issues often only arise after it’s too late. Common issues with DIY Wills have included a failure to execute in accordance with section 9 or unclear testamentary intentions. These issues have ramifications which could be easily avoided (or at least dramatically reduced) had the deceased sought the advice of a solicitor with Will drafting experience.

The importance of legal advice

The work of solicitors advising on Estate matters and the drafting of a Will should never be underestimated. Obtaining clear legal advice provides clients with certainty their Will is compliant with the legal requirements and can be relied upon after death. Additionally, having a Will produced under the supervision of a solicitor will enable the Estate to be administered in a more straightforward manner and consequently reduce the stress involved in post-death arrangements if problems later emerge.

This is not to say that many homemade Wills are invalid or incorrect in some way. But given what is at stake, is it really worth taking the risk?

If you would like to find out more about Will validity claims or the other contentious probate services we provide, please contact our team. If you would like to speak to a member of our Will writing team please get in touch.