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Will forgery – the case of Fraser v Khawaja

Forgery of signatures presents persistent challenges in the legal sector, particularly when they involve the authenticity of a will. The 2023 case, Fraser v Khawaja [2023] EWHC 3143, serves as a striking illustration of such challenges, showcasing the pivotal role of the court in navigating contentious probate disputes. The case highlights the seriousness of will forgery and the need for judicial intervention to maintain probate integrity.

The case

Mr Gerald Thomas Reading (the ‘Deceased’) sadly passed away due to coronavirus in February 2021 without leaving a will. As he had no immediate close relatives, his cousins would inherit his estate according to intestacy rules.

Andrew Fraser (the ‘Claimant’) was appointed to deal with the Deceased’s estate in his capacity as a genealogist. Upon applying for letters of administration, the Claimant realised he had been beaten to it by Abbey King Khawaja (the ‘Defendant’). The Defendant had provided what he claimed to be the will of the Deceased and successfully obtained a grant of probate.  

The will provided by the Defendant was poorly drafted, contained typographical and grammatical errors and was inconsistent with the Deceased’s educational and professional background. However most notably, the will left the residuary estate to a friend, Mr William Joseph, who’s listed address appeared to be slum in Pakistan. The Deceased had no connections with Pakistan and on review of the Deceased’s signature, there were discrepancies between the signature on the will and documents the Deceased had signed whilst he was alive.

The Defendant obtained the grant of probate acting under a power of attorney allegedly signed by Mr Joseph. Unsurprisingly, Mr Joseph could not be traced, and neither could the alleged witnesses to the will. The probate registry refused to revoke the grant of probate and the Claimant had to make an application to the court.

The judgement

The Chief Master had to ensure that Mr Joseph, though untraceable, was also bound by the decision. As such, the court appointed the Defendant to represent Mr Joseph’s so that all parties would be bound by the decision. When notified of the claim, the Defendant failed to acknowledge service, so the court ordered a trial of the claim to be on written evidence pursuant to CPR 57.10(3). The Chief Master reaffirmed that the ultimate legal burden of proving the validity of the will, rests on the party upholding the will. Considering the handwriting, inconsistencies, typographical and grammatical errors, the lack of evidence of Mr Joseph’s existence and the conduct of the Defendant, the Chief Master found the Claimant provided sufficient evidence to raise serious doubts about the validity of the will. The will was deemed fraudulent, aiming to deceive and acquire the Deceased’s estate unlawfully. The police were notified and the will was retained in the Rolls Buildings for safe keeping. The Defendant was ordered to pay the Claimant’s legal costs on an indemnity basis.

Practical implications of the case

On the face of it, the will appeared to be suspicious and a grant of probate should not have been obtained, at least without some scrutiny from the probate registry.  The will is likely to have been accepted without scrutiny as a consequence of the pandemic’s impact on the workings of the probate registry. Meaning there could be undetected cases of fraud, where there are no active beneficiaries to an estate.

Even if the fraud is uncovered as it was in this case, the probate registry is not willing to assist and allow revocation through a non-continuous route. Instead, a claimant will have to endure long and costly court proceedings where the burden falls on them to prove that the will should be set aside.

Written by Megan Wood – Trainee Solicitor in the Litigation Department.

Are you concerned about the possibility of forgery in connection with a will?  Contact Justine McCool who has a wealth of experience dealing with contentious probate claims.  

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