Limerick Circuit Court
THREE handwriting experts gave evidence at Limerick Circuit Court last week that they believe the signature on the will of a bachelor farmer from county Limerick who died almost three years ago was forged.
Conor O’Donnell who lived at Ballyea, Rathkeale, was 66 when he died suddenly on April 19, 2014.
The executors of the late Mr O’Donnell’s will - Josie Ahern, Kilrea, Croagh, and John Chawke, Duxtown House, Rathkeale, – are seeking a court order declaring that the will is formally approved and not subject to contest.
Neither of the executors are beneficiaries of the disputed will, which was purportedly signed on May 18, 2012.
The application by the executors is being opposed by three of his sisters — Christina Greaney, Ardagh; Catherine Anna Kelly who lives in Roscahill, Galway, and Margaret O’Donnell who lives in Drumcondra, Dublin.
It is their case that their brother’s signature was forged and that the will document is not valid.
In her evidence, Margaret O’Donnell said when she saw the will a number of months after her brother died she immediately knew it was not his signature because of “the construction of it”.
She told Vinog Faughnan SC that Conor “never joined the two ‘ns’” in his signature and that his writing slanted to the right and not to the left as appeared on the will.
“It’s not Conor’s signature,” she said agreeing that she was also taking issue with some of the terminology used in the will to describe certain fields which he owned. She said she was also “very much surprised” that his two Godchildren and several nephews and nieces were not mentioned in the will.
Mrs O’Donnell told the court she was also disputing the earlier evidence of Josie Ahern and Mary Mullane who told the court they had witnessed Conor signing the will which is disputed.
Mrs Mullane, who was chairperson of the County Limerick IFA family farm group at the time, told the court she had helped Mr O’Donnell in the past to fill out various forms associated with his farming activities.
She said she met Conor O’Donnell at Ms Ahern’s home on the evening of May 18, 2012.
“He had an A4 page which he had written down what he was doing with his property,” she said confirming that she had filled out the will in accordance with the instructions. She added that she had helped around 20 other farmers with will documents over the years.
“Don’t take farmers to be fools. When it comes to form filling he didn’t want to make mistakes. I would have conferred with him. I wouldn’t be familiar with his nephews or extended family,” said Mrs Mullane.
The main beneficiaries of the will,the court heard, are three of Conor O’Donnell’s nephews – Ivan, Neville and well-known solicitor Michael O’Donnell.
"Everything in that will is what he requested," said Mrs Mullane who said the bachelor was very private and asked Mrs Ahern to burn the A4 page which she did.
Mrs Mullane said Mr O’Donnell printed his name and signed the will, then Mrs Ahern and then she did the same. “He witnessed both of us,” said Mrs Mullane.
Margaret O’Donnell said she did not accept the evidence of Mrs Mullane, who was arrested and questioned in November 2015 as part of a criminal investigation into the matter.
“I can’t believe he would come into a house at night and ask two people to fill out a will,” she said.
Mrs O’Donnell added that she was nauseated at the fact that it (the will) “has been ascribed to a dead man in his grave”.
Another sister – Christina Greaney – told the court she was “very familiar” with Conor’s signature which she said did not match the one on the will.
”I expected his signature would have been proper, it wasn’t,” she said. “I never saw it (the signature) before, it is not his will,” she added.
Both of Conor O’Donnell’s sisters agreed with Terry O’Connell BL, for the executors, that they had not seen their brother for several years prior to his death and that they were shocked and surprised when they were informed of the contents of the will.
During the hearing, the court also heard evidence from three handwriting experts including a detective garda who is based at Garda Headquarters.
Det Garda Geraldine Butler said she visited the probate office in Limerick in August 2014 as part of the garda investigation.
She told the court she inspected the original will document of the late Mr O’Donnell and compared the signature on the will to a number of sample signatures which were given to her.
These signatures, the court heard, were found on AIB cheques and business documents which the farmer had signed on dates before and after the date he signed the will.
Detective Garda Butler said there were significant variations between the signature on the will and the sample signatures.
She said the signature on the will lacked fluency; had been written very slowly and that there was retouching in portions of it
She said there was a blunt ending which indicated the signature had been written slowly and with hesitation.
While accepting that no two signatures are identical, she said there was strong evidence to indicate that Conor O’Donnell did not sign the will in question.
Another expert, Seán Lynch, told the court he too was of the view the signature on the will was forged.
The retired detective garda said the differences between the signature on the will and various samples from bank and business documents were significant and that he would not expect a person to change their signature in such a short period of time in so many significant ways.
Another witness – Dave Madden – who specialised in examining documents said he found “numerous and significant differences” between the signature on the will document and the sample signatures.
He said he identified differences in spacing, line quality and fluency as well in the formation of individual letters. Being cross-examined by Mr O’Connell the witness accepted that some of his observations were different to those of the other experts.
“Sometimes experts don’t agree,” he said confirming he was of the view that the will “couldn’t have been signed by Conor O’Donnell”.
Judge Brian O’Callaghan said the case should not deter people from acting as executors of wills.
The judge made his comments as he reserved judgment following the hearing which took place over two days at the circuit court.
Adjourning the case to early next month to allow for written submissions to be prepared, he said while the circumstances of the case were “extraordinary and difficult” it highlights the importance of people being willing to act as executors.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” he commented.
Following the conclusion of the case, Judge O’Callaghan said he will need time to consider the matter as well as any written submissions from both sides.
The case will be mentioned again on May 10, next.