It has been reported recently that a former legal secretary, Dawn Smith, forged a Will to benefit from the entire estate of her wealthy 61 year old husband Harvey.
Smith, 47, married her husband 3 years before his death. It appears that she forged his Will, faking the signatures of her husband and witnesses. The forged Will excluded her husband’s two adult daughters from his previous marriage and made herself and her son from another relationship the sole beneficiaries of his £1 million estate.
After her husband’s death in 2012 she initially told his family that she didn’t believe that he had a Will but she later produced the paperwork leaving his £500,000 house in Darlington to her, together with a pension worth £420,000. She has since remarried a Turkish waiter.
The deception was uncovered when a partner at the Darlington firm of solicitors, Hewitts where Dawn Smith had worked, thought it suspicious that Harvey’s adult daughters were overlooked whilst Dawn’s son was included. Police were alerted and a handwriting expert concluded that the deceased’s signature was a forgery.
The case raises the intriguing question now as to what will happen to Harvey Smith’s estate? Marriage revokes a Will – so any Will that he had made before his marriage to Dawn is no longer valid. If there had been no Will the estate would have passed to Dawn under the intestacy rules.
It seems likely that she decided to forge the Will because, after their marriage, her husband made a new Will in which bequests were left to his daughters as well as to her and she wanted to avoid them being beneficiaries. If that was the case then the forged Will is obviously invalid and the previous Will would take effect.
But, that would mean that Dawn Smith would still benefit from her late husband’s estate despite being a convicted fraudster. The situation is even worse had he made no Will after his marriage (or if any such Will had been destroyed by Dawn Smith) because everything would then pass to her under the intestacy rules – again, despite her conviction.
Partner and contentious probate specialist, Sarah Young of Ridley & Hall Solicitors, comments:-
“Rather shockingly the legal rule of forfeiture does not help Harvey Smith’s daughters in this particular case.
The forfeiture rule applies to prevent a beneficiary from receiving benefit under a Will if he has unlawfully killed the testator (the maker of the Will) or unlawfully ‘aided, abetted, counselled or procured’ his death. It does not extend to other crimes. The rule also applies to intestacy. Without knowing more of the facts of the case one can only speculate about the final outcome in this case – but it seems likely that the widow here will receive some financial benefit despite her conviction for fraud.”
Sarah Young is concerned about the wider implications in financial abuse cases:
“The same principle applies to perpetrators of financial abuse. Say, for example, someone faces criminal proceedings for having stolen money from a vulnerable elderly person. If they have been left money in a valid Will (or if they would inherit anyway under the intestacy rules) they are still be entitled to inherit their bequest after their victim dies. As a matter of public policy this must be wrong!”
Financial abuse, particularly of the elderly, is on the rise. The charity Action on Elder Abuse has reported a 150% increase in reports of financial abuse to their helpline in the last year; 680 calls to their helpline in 2013 showed that transactions involving £24m were reported as having been either stolen, defrauded or coerced.
Sarah Young warns:
“This is a crime that is most often perpetrated by family members and of course, they will often benefit under a Will or intestacy. For that reason, in my opinion, the forfeiture rule should be changed to prevent individuals who have been convicted of an offence of fraud from benefiting from a Will or an intestacy of their victim.”
Sarah Young is a Partner with Ridley & Hall Legal Limited and specialises in Will disputes, cases involving missing people and the Court of Protection. Sarah offers practical, friendly and cost effective advice. She understands the sensitive nature of cases which often involve disputes between families and has a record of bringing the most complex cases to a successful conclusion.
For further information please contact Sarah Young of Ridley and Hall, Queens House, 35 Market Street, Huddersfield HD1 2HL on 01484 538421 or mobile 07860 165850.