Mary Mullane witnessed the will being signed
A JUDGE has ruled the evidence of three handwriting experts who testified that a signature on the will of a County Limerick farmer had been forged was not sufficient for him to declare the will invalid.
Over the course of a two day hearing last month, the executors of Conor O’Donnell’s will – Josie Ahern, Kilrea, Croagh and John Chawke, Duxtown House, Rathkeale – sought an order declaring the will “be propounded in solemn form of law” and be admitted to Probate.
The bachelor farmer of Ballyea, Rathkeale, was 66 when he died suddenly on April 19, 2014.
The application by the executors of the will was 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.
Following legal submissions, he ordered that two thirds of the legal costs of Mr O’Donnell’s sisters be paid from Conor O’Donnell’s estate.
While none of the women were excluded from the will, the main beneficiaries, the court heard, are three of Conor O’Donnell’s nephews – Ivan, Neville and well-known solicitor Michael O’Donnell.
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”.
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.
In her evidence Mary Mullane, who was chairperson of the County Limerick IFA family farm group at the time, said she met Mr O’Donnell at Josie Ahern’s home on the evening of May 18, 2012 where he asked her to fill out the will document.
“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.
Mrs Mullane said Mr O’Donnell printed his name and signed the will, then Mrs Ahern and she did the same. “He witnessed both of us,” said Mrs Mullane.
Delivering a lengthy judgment on Friday, Judge Brian O’Callaghan said there a number of issues had been raised but that the key question was: “Did the deceased sign the document himself in both signature and print?”
The judge said Mr O’Donnell was a “most interesting man” who would have been disappointed with the court proceedings.
He noted he was well educated and was a well read and travelled man.
Citing the existing law relating to wills, Judge O’Callaghan said the presumption of due execution “should not be easily rebutted if a will on its face appears validly executed”.
Therefore, he said the burden of proof was on the defendants (Mr O’Donnell’s sisters) to rebut that presumption on the balance of probabilities.
The judge said he did not accept the proposition that either Josie Ahern or Mary Mullane had “simulated” Mr O’Donnell’s signature or that they had committed perjury during the court hearing.
“Neither of them had anything to gain or lose directly or indirectly from the making of this type of will. They had no reason why they should not tell the truth,” he said adding that the their demeanour in court showed them to be “responsible persons who understood the importance of telling the truth”.
He said their evidence was “clear and consistent” and that the both clearly had a connection with and a fondness for Conor O’Donnell.
Referring to what he described as the “opinion evidence” of the three handwriting experts who said they believed the signature on the will had been forged Judge O’Callaghan commented that each had “their own peculiar and different emphasis”.
He said there were too many unknowns and that there was “too much missing” to make their evidence “sufficiently cogent, compelling or convincing” to allow him find the allegation of forgery had been proved on the balance of probabilities.
After finding in favour of the executors, the judge placed a stay on his order pending the lodging of an appeal.