Approximately two weeks after Jack died, I met one of his sons. He was concerned because his stepmother, Jack’s widow, had produced a will that was questionable in several respects. Much of the language was odd (this phrase, for instance: “I will not foreclose on either home my spouse and I own together”). The date of the will was the month that Jack and his widow reunited after an 18-month separation. The signature did not look like Jack’s and was not notarized. The will nominated the widow as executor, despite the fact that the major asset was Jack’s business and the widow had no business experience. And the will left virtually all of Jack’s estate to her even though one of Jack’s sons worked at Jack’s business and the other was in high school.
By the time I became involved, the clerk had already accepted the will for probate but had not yet appointed an executor. Jack’s sons were concerned that if the widow was appointed executor, she would ruin the business before a caveat would be tried. So I decided to move to revoke probate and to contest the appointment of the widow. Revoking probate would be difficult, but it offered three benefits: First, it would record testimony from the widow and the two witnesses to the will sooner than later; second it would provide me with time and leverage to negotiate for a court-appointed executor (which happened); and third, we’d get the clerk’s reaction to the evidence.
The court denied the motion to revoke probate, but by then we knew when and how the will was supposedly signed. As I prepared the caveat, I contemplated how the widow could have created the will. I found an internet company, Rocket Lawyer, that provided templates for wills. I began a will and noticed the headings and font were the same as Jack’s will and all text was modifiable. A phone call confirmed that Rocket Lawyer had a will in Jack’s name. I served a subpoena and anxiously waited for documents. Would the account be in the widow’s name or Jack’s? Was the will created in May 2010 as the witnesses stated or after Jack died – as his sons suspected?
I was pleased when documents arrived. The account was in the widow’s name, and the will had been started five months after Jack supposedly signed his will. I thought the case was over, but the widow claimed to know nothing about Rocket Lawyer. Nothing.
At that point, the sons and I decided to sue the widow and the witnesses for fraud. I realized North Carolina had not recognized a civil claim for perjury, but the defendants’ actions in creating the fake will seemed to go beyond perjury (although the courts ultimately disagreed). I worried that the risk of personal liability may discourage the witnesses from telling the truth, but I hoped that their ties to the widow were weak enough to encourage them to settle. I realized I could be opening myself up to facing three lawyers at trial, but I guessed that the witnesses would use the widow’s lawyer to save on fees. If they did use different lawyers, I hoped at least one of them would convince his or her witness to tell the truth.
The witnesses hired the widow’s lawyer, which resulted in an unexpected benefit to me. When the lawyer called one of the witnesses about the fraud case, he left a message on a cell phone that the witness had recently returned to the woman he dated for 30 years and had recently broken up with. Upon hearing the message, the ex-girlfriend – who believed Jack’s widow was the cause of her broken relationship and was none too happy with her ex-boyfriend – drove 60 miles to the courthouse to get the complaint. She then called me. You can imagine my delight when she told me that the witness had visited her two days after Jack’s funeral (to pay his phone bill) and said “the widow has a will but it is not signed.” But even after this evidence came to light, the widow maintained her position.
Throughout the case, I provided information to local police detective named Mitch Queen. I liked it when he called and instead of saying hello would say “Queen brother.” Just before mediation, Queen went to visit one of the witnesses. At first, she lied about who she was, but Queen responded she looked an awful lot like the witness’s DMV photo. The next day she admitted to being herself but stuck with her original testimony about the will. After a weekend of restless sleep, however, she confessed that the widow asked her to sign the will after Jack died.
A few weeks later, the widow and the other witness were charged with multiple felonies. Facing criminal liability, the widow finally agreed to resolve the caveat. The criminal charges remain pending.
What are the lessons from this case? I’ve got three:
Don’t use the Internet as your source for forged documents.
Don’t commit a felony months after breaking up with your girlfriend of 30 years.
Don’t mess around with Det. Queen.
Thomas Holderness is an attorney with Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte.