Allegedly forged will is declared genuine after all

4 March 2013

The England and Wales High Court has decided that a disputed will purportedly executed by the late Chris John is genuine ‒ although a criminal court has already convicted his former cohabitant for forging it.

John, a wealthy Cardiff estate agent, died suddenly in September 2008. At first no will could be found, and his sisters quarrelled with his former wife Helen John over who would administer the estate.

It then emerged that Mr and Mrs John, who had supposedly been divorced in 2001, were still married at his death, no decree absolute ever having been issued. Helen John was therefore his widow, with a strong claim on his estate under the intestacy rules.

But shortly afterwards, Mr John's cohabitant Gillian Clemo found a will apparently executed by Chris John in 1999 and witnessed by herself and another party. It appointed Mr John's sister Melissa as executor and as the guardian of his 13-year-old daughter by Helen John, while the estate would go to the daughter when she reaches 27.

Helen John then accused Gillian Clemo of forging the main part of the will. South Wales police investigated, and, apparently on the basis of some indentation marks on the will, which Clemo could not explain, decided to prosecute. [In a bizarre episode, Helen John also admitted adding a forged codicil to this will. For this she received a police caution, though the prosecution of Clemo still went ahead.]

At Clemo's trial in May 2011, a handwriting expert testified that the disputed will was genuine. Moreover, the other witness to the will signed an attestation of due execution. Nevertheless, Clemo was convicted and fined GBP1000 plus GBP8,500 costs.

Soon afterwards, Helen John sought a court declaration that the will produced by Gillian Clemo was invalid and that Chris John had died intestate. However, another twist was still to come. After Clemo's conviction, John's sister Melissa had again searched his papers, and found yet another will. It was identical in all respects to the one previously discovered by Clemo, down to the testator's and witnesses' signatures.

Accordingly, Melissa, who herself has no financial interest in the estate, was persuaded that Clemo's account was true. She instructed law firm Withers and Owen Curry of XXIV Old Buildings to oppose Helen John's claim to inherit her late husband's estate through intestacy.

The dispute was finally resolved at a hearing of the High Court of the Cardiff District Probate Registry. A second handwriting expert, Audrey Giles, was called to testify that the wills were both genuine. Chris John, it seems, had executed two copies one after the other, and it was the signing of the top copy that had produced the suspicious-looking indentations on the bottom copy found by Clemo. The Judge, Jarman J, agreed and granted an order upholding the will, and rejecting Helen John's application for a grant of representation in intestacy. Administration of the estate was by agreement handed over to a Bristol law firm.

Clemo will now try to have her criminal conviction overturned. She is thought to be out of time to go to the Appeal Court, but can still approach the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

‘We are optimistic that this decision from the High Court will lead to Ms Clemo's conviction being overturned,’ said Paul Hewitt TEP of Withers.

 

Sources

 

Wales Online

Withers LLP (private correspondence)


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