What is forgery?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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A person commits the crime of forgery when, with the intent to defraud, s/he executes, alters or publishes a writing without the owner’s knowledge or consent. A person also commits forgery if s/he fraudulently makes a writing and holds it out to be the work of another. The list of what constitutes a “writing” is long, and can include money, coins, credit cards, checks, bank drafts, stock certificates, bonds, wills and deeds.

Punishments for Forgery

While it can differ from state to state, forgery is generally classified as either a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the nature of the writing or instrument that was fraudulently made (or published or altered). For example, in Pennsylvania, forgery is a felony of the second degree, punishable by up to ten years in prison if the fraudulent writing is money, postage stamps, or other instruments issued by the government. It is also a felony if the forgery is of stocks and bonds or other instruments effecting an interest in or claims against a business or enterprise. Forgery is a felony of the third degree, punishable by up to seven years in prison if the writing is a will, deed, contract or other instrument effecting legal relationships. Forgery not involving the types of writings indicated above is a misdemeanor.

Forgery – An Example

To better understand what forgery is, consider the following example. Horace dies, without having first made a will. Under Pennsylvania law, his property should be divided equally between his three sons, Harold, Hector and Herman. Harold and Hector devise a scheme to divide the estate only between them. Harold types a will that distributes Horace’s property equally between himself and Hector and that disinherits Herman. He signs Horace’s name to this fraudulent document. Harold is guilty of forgery as a third-degree felony by making the will and executing (signing) it. Hector takes the fraudulent document to the Register of Wills and offers it as Horace’s real will. Hector is guilty of forgery as a third-degree felony in publishing it.

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