A handwriting expert was a crucial witness in an action brought by the personal representative of the estate who sought to set aside a deed purportedly signed by her deceased father.
The deed purported to convey property from the decedent to his son, the defendant. The decedent’s daughter, the plaintiff, claimed that the son forged his father’s signature on the deed. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant was the person who actually signed the document after their father’s death.
The signature purporting to be that of the decedent on the deed was notarized by a Massachusetts notary public. The notary public had known Defendant for over 30 years. He retired from banking in 2011, and took his most current notary journal with him and stored it in his garage. However, the journal was damaged by water, and he threw it out. The notary public bought a new notary journal, which was introduced at trial. The first entry in the new journal was the notarization of the deed, with the decedent’s signature. The contested signature was the entry reviewed by Plaintiff’s handwriting expert.
Associate Justice Karyn F. Scheier of the Massachusetts Land Court found that the handwriting analysis corroborated the trial testimony and documentary evidence.
Plaintiff’s handwriting consultant was trained to testify as an expert in handwriting analysis and was qualified as an expert in the case. As part of her analysis, she reviewed known exemplars of signatures of Plaintiff, Defendant, and the decedent. This included numerous personal checks signed by the decedent; personal checks signed by Defendant in his father’s name; the decedent’s will and the codicils; powers of attorney signed by the decedent; and various other legal and business correspondence.The handwriting expert also examined documents in which the signatories were not known or confirmed, such as the signature on the disputed deed.
The handwriting expert incorporated several techniques into her analysis of the documents. She specifically focused on the formation of the capital letter “T,” the middle initial in the decedent’s signature; the formation and placement of the capital “C” in his last name; the formation and place of the last three letters in his first name; letter idiosyncrasies; letter proportions; letter slant; and pressure patterns. Her testimony was aided by enlarged copies of the signatures, used as chalks.
The handwriting analyst specifically concentrated on letter slant. This required drawing lines over a signature on the upstroke of each letter, from the baseline to the point where the letter changes direction. The decedent’s known signatures had letter slants that were mostly forward lines that were parallel and didn’t intersect. The questioned signatures had intersecting and crossing letter slant lines throughout.
Because of this, the handwriting expert concluded the questioned characteristics of the signature on the deed didn’t match the known signatures of the decedent; she stated in her expert opinion the deed wasn’t signed by him.
Justice Scheier explained in her opinion that a forged conveyancing instrument is void, and has no effect—even if recorded in regular fashion with the registry of deeds. A notary certificate on a deed, however, is proof presumptive of a valid acknowledgment, unless there’s evidence that rebuts or impeaches the notary’s testimony. As the party claiming the decedent’s signature on the deed is a forgery, the justice said that the plaintiff carries the burden of rebutting the presumption of a valid acknowledgment of the decedent’s signature on the deed.
Here, the key witnesses who testified at trial for Defendant displayed inconsistencies in their testimony, which, on many points, wasn’t at all credible, Justice Scheier found. These inconsistencies, along with the expert testimony offered by Plaintiff’s handwriting expert, convinced the Court that the signature on the deed didn’t belong to the decedent. The Court found that Plaintiff presented sufficient clear and convincing evidence rebutting the presumption arising from the signature on the deed and the notary certificate. As a result, the deed was void.
Defendant objected to the handwriting expert’s qualifications as an expert witness, arguing that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that her testimony met the standard required under Daubert. However, Justice Scheier said that Massachusetts has long admitted in evidence handwriting comparisons by a qualified expert. Handwriting comparisons are also generally considered sufficiently established that any preliminary screening is unnecessary. After argument regarding the handwriting expert’s qualifications, the Court qualified the expert to testify regarding the handwriting exemplars.
While the expert further concluded that the disputed signature matched those of the son, and that he was the one who ultimately signed the deed in his father’s name, having found the signature on the deed was forged, the Court didn’t reach the issue of who actually signed it. The handwriting expert’s testimony was compelling, the justice said.
The Court credited the testimony of Plaintiff and was supported by the expert opinion testimony of the handwriting analyst that the signature on the deed wasn’t that of the decedent. Accordingly, the Court held that the signature of the decedent on the deed was forged, and the deed therefore is a nullity.
McNeff v. Cerretani,2018 Mass. LCR LEXIS 190 (Mass. Land Ct. September 12, 2018)