Inheritance Forgery

By Weisbord, Reid Kress; Horton, David | Duke Law Journal, January 2020 | Go to article overview

Inheritance Forgery


Weisbord, Reid Kress, Horton, David, Duke Law Journal


ABSTRACT

Many venerable norms in inheritance law were designed to prevent forgery. Most prominently, since 1X37, the Wills Act has required testators to express their last wishes in a signed and witnessed writing. Likewise, the court-supervised probate process helped ensure that a donative instrument was genuine and that assets passed to their rightful owners. But in the mid-twentieth century, concern about forgery waned. Based in part on the perception that counterfeit estate plans are rare, several states relaxed the Wills Act and authorized new formalities for notarized and even digital wills. In addition, lawmakers encouraged owners to bypass probate altogether by transmitting wealth through devices such as life insurance and transfer-on-death deeds.

This Article offers a fresh look at inheritance-related forgery. Cutting against the conventional wisdom, it discovers that counterfeit donative instruments are a serious problem. Using reported cases, empirical research, grand jury investigations, and media stories, it reveals that courts routinely adjudicate credible claims that wills, deeds, and life insurance beneficiary designations are illegitimate. The Article then argues that the persistence of inheritance-related forgeries casts doubt on the wisdom of some recent innovations, including statutes that permit notarized and electronic wills. The Article also challenges well-established inheritance law norms, including the litigation presumptions in will-forgery contests, the widespread practice of rubber-stamping deeds, and the delegation of responsibility for authenticating a nonprobate transfer to private companies. Finally, the Article outlines reforms to modernize succession while remaining sensitive to the risks of forgery.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction

I. The History of Inheritance Forgery
     A. Traditional Protections Against Forgery
     B. The Marginalization of Forgery

II. Modern Inheritance Forgery
     A. Wills
     B. Deeds
     C. Life Insurance Beneficiary Designations

III. Normative Prescriptions
     A. Wills
        1. Execution
        2. Burden-Shifting
     B. Deed Authentication
     C. Beneficiary Designations

Conclusion
Appendix

INTRODUCTION

In 2013, a widower named Earl Field died in a small Kansas town, leaving $20 million in property and two documents that purported to be his will. (1) One, which Field had executed in 2010, was prepared by his longtime attorney and left most of his assets to a charitable foundation run by his alma mater, Fort Hays State University ("FHSU"). (2) But a month before Field passed away, he allegedly created a codicil--an amendment to his estate plan--by drafting a letter that gave half of his property to his bookkeeper and caretaker, Wanda Oborny. (3) This self-made letter appeared to bear the signatures of Field and two witnesses, Steve and Kathy Little. (4) Because it seemed to satisfy the black-letter requirements for making a will, it enjoyed a presumption of validity. (5)

However, the circumstances surrounding the creation of this instrument were suspicious. Oborny initially claimed that she had found two similar but unwitnessed letters inside Field's office desk drawer. (7) Only after she learned that a valid will must be executed by attesting witnesses did she supposedly uncover the instrument that Steve and Kathy Little had signed. (8) Even more alarmingly, when the FBI tried to question the Littles about witnessing the disputed codicil, Steve killed Kathy and then committed suicide. (9) Finally, although Field had taken pains to minimize his taxes during life, his bequest to Oborny rather than the charitable FHSU foundation would have uncharacteristically saddled his estate with millions of dollars in tax liability. (10) Because of these peculiarities, FHSU contested the purported codicil as a forgery. (11)

The discovery of two documents broke the case open. One was a rough draft of the suspicious codicil prepared in Oborny's handwriting. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Inheritance Forgery
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.