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What is Forgery?

Updated on October 16, 2011

Forgery, in law, is the making or altering of a written instrument with intent to defraud another person. Under early English common law, the only kinds of forgery that were punishable were forgery of the king's seal or money and reliance on a forged instrument in a court of law. An act of Parliament in 1562, reciting in its preamble the widespread practice of forging charters, evidences, deeds, and other writings, imposed severe civil and criminal penalties for forging certain writings. The scope of the clime was broadened still further by later statutes and by the common law courts, which held that many additional cases, not covered by the statutes, were misdemeanors.

In 1830 the English law of forgery was first consolidated by an act of Parliament, which classified the different kinds of forgeries according to the punishments imposed. Although forgery is generally regarded as a common law misdemeanor in the United States, most jurisdictions have statutes defining the offense and prescribing penalties for it. The principal elements of forgery, are a false making or altering of some instrument in writing, an intent to defraud someone, and an instrument that possesses some apparent legal effect.

Forgery may consist of making an entire instrument, filling in blanks over a genuine signature, or materially altering or erasing an existing instrument. The use of a fictitious name, and even the use of the maker's own name with the intent that it shall be received as the signature of another person having a similar name, may constitute forgery.

For purposes of forgery, an instrument may be printed, typewritten, or engraved, as well as signed by hand. Except as otherwise provided by statute, almost any instrument that could prejudice or affect the legal rights or liabilities of another may be the subject of forgery. Examples are promissory notes, bills of exchange, checks, receipts, bonds, orders for money or goods, deeds, mortgages, discharges of mortgages, public records, account books, railroad tickets or passes, concert and theater tickets.

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