Blog Author: Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M. (Tax), Director of Education,
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
This week I’m sharing a blog from the office of Mike Wakshull, a forensic document examiner. I’ll be sharing blogs from Mike Wakshull in this space from time to time.
Now, here’s the blog from Mike Wakshull:
Blog Author: Mike Wakshull, MS, CQE, CISA, PMP
You see an unfamiliar signature on a will or trust that was allegedly signed by a deceased relative. You suspect the signature on a trust or will is not legitimate. There are steps you can take before engaging the expense of hiring a forensic document examiner to determine whether the signature is legitimate.
Many people’s signatures change over time due to age-related problems, changes in health, injury, and other causes. Some people’s signatures are virtually identical over time. To determine the consistency of the person’s signature, collect 15 or more signatures written by the deceased relative within two or three years of the signature in question. These signatures should span the date of this signature. This shows whether the person’s signature is consistent or has changed.
Often a person will compare only two or three examples of the person’s signature. This is not sufficient for comparison because it does not show a range of how the person signed. Maybe the signature in question appears different from the known signatures, yet the person may have different ways of signing their name.
A recent case required determining whether a decedent had written and signed a change of beneficiary form. I was given examples of his normal course of business handwriting and signatures for comparison. I was also given examples of his wife’s handwriting. Based on the handwriting, I opined that the wife had written the text on the change of beneficiary form. I also opined that it was virtually certain the decedent did not sign the change of beneficiary form. Although the signature on the change of beneficiary form looked very similar to the decedent’s signature, it did not match the form of his signature from within days of the alleged signature on the change of beneficiary form.
Upon inquiry, I learned that the decedent had a stroke at the end of December. Signatures written after the stroke revealed he could barely write his last name. The known signatures degraded almost by the day. The signature in question was similar to the signatures written before the stroke. The evidence showed the decedent was not capable of writing this signature. I could not determine who wrote the signature.
You can compare the signature in question with known signatures that are from dates close in time; both before and after. Look at details such as stroke direction, the relative size of letters, etc.
In another case, on initial examination of signatures on different amendments to a trust, the signatures of the witnesses and trustor appeared to be very similar on both documents. Here, you can hold the documents to a bright window. Place the signatures over each other. See whether they are identical. If they are identical, one may be a copy of the other. Given the popularity of image processing software, this is easily accomplished. Many color photocopiers offer sufficient quality images that the copy appears to be an original ink writing. Use a loupe or magnifying glass to examine the writing to determine whether it is ink or a photocopy. A photocopy will consist of cyan, yellow, and magenta dots. The ink line will be a solid color.
Mike Wakshull, MS, CQE, CISA, PMP, is a forensic document examiner based in Temecula, CA, and has worked with clients in 22 states and 3 countries. He applies his training in science and engineering to the examination of documents. He uses technology to achieve results and communicates with his clients via video conferencing. He may be contacted through his website https://quality9.com and email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are many ways an Estate Plan could be invalid and not carried out. By consulting an experienced Estate Planning attorney who focuses their practice in the area, you can minimize the risk of your Estate Plan being invalid.
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Litherland, Kennedy & Associates, APC, Attorneys at Law are members of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys. If you would like to learn more about the importance of estate planning, we invite you to attend one of our free estate planning seminars.