What is forgery?

UPDATED: Jul 18, 2023Fact Checked

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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 18, 2023

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UPDATED: Jul 18, 2023Fact Checked

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.

Case Studies: Understanding Forgery

Case Study 1: Fraudulent Will

In this case, Harold and Hector, two sons of the deceased Horace, devised a scheme to divide their father’s estate unfairly, excluding their brother Herman. Harold forged a will that appeared to be Horace’s genuine document, distributing the property equally between himself and Hector while disinheriting Herman.

By executing the fraudulent will and signing Horace’s name, Harold committed forgery as a third-degree felony. Subsequently, Hector presented the forged will to the Register of Wills, falsely claiming it to be Horace’s authentic document, thereby also committing forgery as a third-degree felony.

Case Study 2: Government Instrument Forgery

In this example, a person, Jane, fraudulently alters government-issued instruments, including money and postage stamps, with the intent to defraud. In Pennsylvania, such actions are classified as a felony of the second degree, subjecting Jane to a potential prison sentence of up to ten years. Jane’s intention to deceive through the alteration of government instruments demonstrates the serious nature of this forgery offense.

Case Study 3: Deed Forgery

A property owner, Mr. Smith, becomes the victim of forgery when someone fraudulently alters his deed without his knowledge or consent. The perpetrator, seeking to defraud Mr. Smith, changes the ownership details on the deed and presents it as genuine to deceive potential buyers. Such an act of forgery, involving an instrument effecting legal relationships, constitutes a third-degree felony in Pennsylvania, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

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Jeffrey Johnson

Insurance Lawyer

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...

Insurance Lawyer

Mary Martin

Published Legal Expert

Mary Martin has been a legal writer and editor for over 20 years, responsible for ensuring that content is straightforward, correct, and helpful for the consumer. In addition, she worked on writing monthly newsletter columns for media, lawyers, and consumers. Ms. Martin also has experience with internal staff and HR operations. Mary was employed for almost 30 years by the nationwide legal publi...

Published Legal Expert

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about legal topics and insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything legal and insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by experts.

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