Is there case law in common-law-based legal systems regarding claims that a will is forged - but without the signature being forged, and without the text being altered after the signature?

For example: Someone wants to take over your assets when you die. So, they write a will in which you supposedly leave everything to them, put a gun to your head and make you sign it. The signature has not been forged - you signed; and the text isn't changed after your signature. But clearly that is not your will, and in some legal systems (e.g. the UK's forgery act of 1981) would be considered a forged document AFAICT.

Another example: You're about to sign your will; but as you look away, someone exchanges the page for a different page which gives them more and others less. So, the signature wasn't forged, but the signed document is not your will.

These are the sorts of situations about which I'm interested in rulings on the question of forgery.


  • I realize that a document can be an "invalid will" as opposed to a "forged will", and that undue influence is often invalidating. I'm interested in cases where the question of forgery was discussed.
  • I'm particularly interested in cases of softer coercion to sign than a literal gun to one's head.
  • The higher the legal forum the better.
  • Rulings that also kind of survey the legal situation rather than simply deciding a case are preferable.
  • Have a non-common-law example? Please provide a link a comment.
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    Uk law: It's only forgery when the signature is forged. If the signature wasnt forged, the will is, in form, valid. However, just because the will is not forged does not make it valid, the will must fulfil other requirements, such as: it must represent the true intentions of the testator, the testator must have the correct mental capacity, and the testator must have exercised his free will. Having any of those elements missing will render the will invalid Aug 29 '19 at 8:42
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    Undue influence and forgery are both things which causes a will to be invalid. Undue influence doesn't "rise" to the level of forgery, they are separate. Forgery refers to when a document is faked, e.g the signature, or the text and paper. Undue influence refers to external circumstances which would render an otherwise validly executed will invalid Aug 29 '19 at 9:08
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    This isnt my personal view, its the view of english law. My comments specify that i am coming from an english law perspective. I make no comments on what other jurisdictions define forgeries as. Aug 29 '19 at 9:29
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    I don't see where you get the idea that a document signed under duress is "forged". To quote from the act you linked, "A person is guilty of forgery if he makes a false instrument, with the intention that ..." Do you have anything that suggests a document signed under duress is "a false instrument"? Aug 29 '19 at 9:30
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is based on a misapprehension; that forgery can apply to wills that are valid in form,. but invalid for some other reason. Aug 29 '19 at 17:46

This is not forgery in the usual common law country sense of the word (the statute linked has a definition broader than the usual legal meaning of the term, and I don't have an opinion on what is fraud in a will under that statute). I've never seen the word "forgery" used in the sense of the question in any U.S. case or statute.

The first example (gun to head) is a will invalid as a result of duress (very unusual for a will, although the related notion of undue influence which is generally much softer is the most common ground for a will contest, something I've probably litigated a dozen times). The following is from a brief that I wrote in an undue influence will contest where I successfully defeated a will contest based upon undue influence allegations:

Undue influence means words or conduct, or both, which, at the time of making a will (1) deprived the person making the will of his free choice; and (2) caused the person making the will to make it or part of it differently that he otherwise would have. Scott v. Leonard, 117 Colo. 54, 184 P.2d 138 (1947); Snodgrass v. Smith, 42 Colo. 60, 94 P. 312 (1908); In re Shell's Estate, 28 Colo. 167, 63 P. 413 (1900).

An adult of sound mind who is not acting under undue influence may devise his property to whomever he or she desires; the fact that a will may contain provisions that differ from the trier of fact's idea of what would be proper is not enough to invalidate the will for undue influence. Aquilini v. Chamblin, 94 Colo. 367; 30 P.2d 325 (1934); David v. Davis, 64 Colo. 62, 170 P. 208 (1917); Lehman v. Lindenmeyer, 48 Colo. 305, 109 P. 956 (1909); In re Shell's Estate, 28 Colo. 167, 63 P. 413 (1900).

Influence gained by reason of love, affection, or kindness, or by appeals to such feelings, is not undue influence. In re Rentfro's Estate, 102 Colo. 400, 79 P.2d 1042 (1938); Aquilini v. Chamblin, 94 Colo. 367; 30 P.2d 325 (1934); Blackman v. Edsall, 17 Colo. App. 429, 68 P. 790 (1902).

One should not draw an inference, however, that a person exercised undue influence over another person solely because they were in a confidential and/or fiduciary relationship. Krueger v. Ary, 205 P.3d 1150 (Colo. 2009); In re Estate of Romero, 126 P.3d 228 (Colo. App. 2005); In re Estate of Schlagel, 89 P.3d 419 (Colo. App. 2003). Similarly, undue influence cannot be inferred solely because one or more persons may have had a motive or an opportunity to influence the testator in the making of his will. Scott v. Leonard, 117 Colo. 54, 184 P.2d 138 (1947); Snodgrass v. Smith, 42 Colo. 60, 94 P. 312 (1908); In re Shell's Estate, 28 Colo. 167, 63 P. 413 (1900).

The fact that a person was in a confidential and/or fiduciary relationship with the testator, benefited from the Will, and was actively involved with the preparation or signing of the will, is a set of facts from which a trier of fact may drawn any reasonable inference, but this does not create a presumption of undue influence when it is rebutted, for example, by evidence tending to show that any influence was gains from an appeal to love, affection, or kindness. Krueger v. Ary, 205 P.3d 1150 (Colo. 2009).

The second example is called fraud in the factum and is quite rare but has been litigated and is discussed in detail in this 1920 law review article. In twenty-five years, I've litigated two fraud in the factum cases, one involving the substitution of language in a long contract at the closing table in a complex business deal and the other involving a deed in a quiet title dispute involving a long and messing chain of title with wild deeds, etc., but none involved a will.

I am aware of one will case involving a genuinely forged will, where a client of the first law firm where I worked brought in a woman whom he represented to be his wife to sign his wife's will and deeds from the wife (who was actually an imposter), that took place shortly before I joined that firm as an associate attorney. The notary and witnesses to the will signing were later called in after the death of the wife in a will contest as trial witnesses to describe the woman who signed the documents which established the forgery since she looked nothing like the actual wife (different hair color, different height and build, twenty years younger, different handwriting, etc.). Spoiler alert: The husband didn't win that case.

The 1920 article also addresses the vanishingly rare case of a will procured not by duress or undue influence, and not by fraud in the factum, but instead by fraud in the inducement (e.g. telling someone who is about to write a will that they did something highly disrespectful to a parent causing the parent to write that person out of their will when in fact the account was a total fabrication).

There is a specific doctrine that provides that the federal courts do not have jurisdiction over probate cases, recently reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving Anna Nicole Smith, so it is unlikely that there is much relevant and authoritative case law in the will context in federal court.


I can't improve on the answer by ohwilleke for actual cases, but this kind of thing has been dealt with a number of times in fiction, where forged or invalid wills are rather more common than in real life. Some of these offer interesting fact patterns for invalid wills. (Caution, spoilers for som rather old mystery stories)

  • Where there's a Will by Rex Stout (1940, US) A lawyer in the firmn that drafted a will substituted a page (not the signature page) to benefit the woman he was in lov with at the expense of the Testator's wife and family. I think this would count as a forgery.

  • "The Eye of Apollo" by G. K. Chesterton (England 1911) The testator is blind and intends to leave everything to a "spiritual guide" who has enthralled the testator. But the testator's sister provided a pen that was out of ink, so nothing appeared to be written on the paper. I am not sure if this would be technically "forgery" but I am sure it would be an unlawful act. But since the "guide" murdered the testator minutes after the will was "signed", he could not lawfully take under the will anyway.

  • Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers (1925 England) The testator's great-niece presents a will to hr great-aunt among a set of business papers (leases and tax returns) saying that they are all routine, and attempting to get the aunt to sign them without reading them. Witnesses are hidden where they can see the events but the aunt is not aware of them. The aunt discovers the will and refuses to sign it. Had the attempt succeeded, i think this would have been forgery.

  • The Tightrope Walker by Dorothy Gilman (1970s US) A woman is imprisoned by her protege and former employee, starved and abused until she signs a will, then murdered. Clearly duress.


I am primarily addressing the statutory basis, such as the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981, which defines the offence of forgery thus:

A person is guilty of forgery if he makes a false instrument, with the intention that he or another shall use it to induce somebody to accept it as genuine, and by reason of so accepting it to do or not to do some act to his own or any other person's prejudice

The law also defines "false":

(1)An instrument is false for the purposes of this Part of this Act—

(a)if it purports to have been made in the form in which it is made by a person who did not in fact make it in that form; or

(b)if it purports to have been made in the form in which it is made on the authority of a person who did not in fact authorise its making in that form ; or

(c)if it purports to have been made in the terms in which it is made by a person who did not in fact male it in those terms; or

(d)if it purports to have been made in the terms in which it is made on the authority of a person who did not in fact authorise its making in those terms...

(plus paragraphs on altering). Para (b) is most obviously applicable to a gun-to-head forged document. A different common law jurisdiction, Washington state, defines forgery thus:

(1) A person is guilty of forgery if, with intent to injure or defraud:

(a) He or she falsely makes, completes, or alters a written instrument;

with definitions of falsely making /completing / altering, the most relevant part of which is

(5) To "falsely make" a written instrument means to make or draw a complete or incomplete written instrument which purports to be authentic, but which is not authentic either because the ostensible maker is fictitious or because, if real, he or she did not authorize the making or drawing thereof

See too this overview (1.3. Forgery by altering, corrupting, or falsifying legal documents) from California. The general characterization of forgery is that

forgery is committed when a person makes or alters a writing so that it is false with the intent to defraud.

and see this more scholarly article which reveals historical authorities regarding the term: which confirm that "forgery" is about false documents, and is not limited to signatures. A "will" (in the sense of last will and testament) not created by the testator (but held out as being so created), held out as being the will (wish) of the testator, and being falsely held out as being authorized by the testator is a false document, thus a forgery. Thus the question is legally coherent, and in principle there could be relevant case law specifically addressing "forgery" (which, because it is more specific, would be harder to prove than "undue influence").

  • 2
    So, this is essentially a super-long comment supporting the validity of my question, and for that I thank you. However, I did specifically ask for case law though...
    – einpoklum
    Aug 29 '19 at 16:32
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    Probate law is separate from financial law; a will may be forged or fraudulent. In either case it is invalid, but the two are distinct (as this overview shows). Aug 29 '19 at 17:36

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