Inheritance court fight brings out the worst in family members


People in California may have seen a recent news article about a new variation on the old theme of family members behaving badly when it comes to fighting each other for a share of a wealthy benefactor's inheritance. The sad fact is that money, combined with grief at the loss of a loved one, can lead to some serious family in-fighting when the terms of the will are not crystal clear on how to distribute the deceased's assets.

The issue in this case is a woman who is on trial for forging the names of her siblings on several valuable property deeds that belonged to their elderly father. At her criminal trial, she told the court that she did not recall signing their names to the deed, and that her father, who was still alive at the time of their signing in 2006, must have done it. However, her previous testimony, including a transcript of a voicemail she left for one the family members whose name she allegedly forged, seems to directly contradict her story.

Forgery of a person's name on a legal document is a crime, especially when it involves something as important as a deed or a will. In order to protect people from forgery, California state law requires that the execution, or signing, of every valid will have at least two witnesses. Witnesses must be uninterested, or neutral, parties who have nothing to gain or are not named in the will and these witnesses must also directly view the signing of the will by the testator, not merely hear about it or even be in the same room.

Even if a testator wants to change the terms of the will or amend minor provisions, they will very likely still require witnesses, and a whole host of other issues relating to the old will may persist. These laws are put into place to protect people from forgery and deceit, but they can also be tricky themselves. For this reason, people should always consult with an experienced local California estates and trusts attorney when preparing and executing their will.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Sister denies her own story in Costa inheritance battle," Paula Reed Ward, Jan. 14, 2014

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