Will swindler’s plan exposed

Posted on: July 12th, 2018

There is a saying in life that if something smells off then it probably is and the same is often true when it comes to inheritance disputes. This proved to be the case in the recent press report about the attempted will fraud of former actress Claire Gordon who passed away in 2015.

Claire found fame in the 60’s starring in a number of raunchy comedies and also appearing on the West End stage. Her colourful life continued off screen where she had previously both been married and had been one of the slightly infamous “wifelets” of the former and rather eccentric Lord Bath.

Claire was clearly clever with her finances and at her death she had amassed an estate of some £900,000 with properties both in Wiltshire and Egypt.

Sadly in her last few years of her life it appears that she had become largely estranged from her family, but it was known from family communications that Claire had previously made a will with a solicitor in early 1996 leaving her estate to her cousins and their children.

Claire, aged 74 at her death, developed a brain tumour leading to her passing and as will become apparent; the family were kept in the dark about that illness.

Step forward the delightful Iain MacMaster 71, described as a former solicitor and property consultant. According to several press reports he had previously been convicted for drug trafficking and had been investigated, but not convicted, over a £2.5m charity fraud.

He had apparently, despite his shady past, been friends with Claire for some 30 years and their relationship was said to be “a close non-sexual one”; reading between the lines clearly a relationship of influence.

After Claire’s death MacMaster claimed to have found her last will made in late 2014 that left 60% of the estate to him and making him sole executor. The earlier will had vanished.

Unluckily for Mr MacMaster it appears that one of Claire’s cousins hadn’t lost all contact and she was the one who smelt that something was “off” when she found out about Claire’s death in a public notice. She was furious that not only were friends and family not around Claire when she died, but worse it appears she may have missed the opportunity for life-extending treatment due to MacMaster not telling the family about the illness and excluding all family contact.

It appears that the cousin was rather tenacious and after digging into matters the police became involved due to suspected will fraud.

During the course of the subsequent proceedings MacMaster claimed that Claire had asked him to help her draft her will and at one point he claimed to try and dissuade her from leaving him everything. That led to the will he drafted leaving 40% of the estate to one Morris Benhamu, who apparently had a “kissing and hugging” relationship with Claire who was 41 years his senior. This story was given little credence and all started to unravel.

The witnesses to the will were traced and not only were they unable to authenticate the will, worse one of the witnesses was suffering from a severe mental illness and signed his name on the will “can say”. Clearly can say anything if influenced by a fraudster. Sadly a rather comical turn of events.

Further police investigation included a hand writing expert whose evidence was accepted at trial that the signature was not Claire’s. The final nail in MacMaster’s plan was his computer record was accessed to show that the will was typed up in March 2015, so rather later than the purported 2014 execution date.

Rightly MacMaster was convicted and was given an eight year sentence. The judge was particularly unimpressed that not only had the family not had a chance to see Claire after her diagnosis, so losing the chance to reconcile, but also for her to potentially receive further treatment.

Whilst these types of reports often attract tabloid attention, will fraud is not solely in the celebrity domain. Some cases are easy to spot, but others less so. A good starting point is the question “does this smell right?”. Presented with a questionable estate, we look for typical features that appeared in Claire Gordon’s case. Some typical suspicious factors are:

  • Surprise late dated home prepared wills.
  • Missing earlier wills.
  • Socially isolated testators.
  • Controlling beneficiaries who inherit a large portion of the estate or indeed all of it.
  • Evidence that long standing will arrangements are suddenly changed.
  • Close family who are all excluded and might have expected to inherit.
  • Witnesses who have no links to the testator.

The best way to avoid will fraud is to have an established relationship with a firm of solicitors who will not only have in place checks to reduce the risk of fraud, but who can also store wills. If you want to change your will over time a solicitor can help you consider all the options and ensure that an independent note is retained on the file to note the client’s instructions. If any dispute does arise the information on the file can be of enormous help.

It is a sad fact of life that even people with quite sizeable estates often shy away from paying for a solicitor drafted will. Whilst no one likes paying legal fees, the better way of looking at it is that it is an insurance policy to ensure the proper distribution of your estate, quite apart from also looking at effective tax planning.

If you would like further advice, please contact Chris Gambs, Associate Solicitor in our Inheritance and Wills Disputes Team