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Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a forensic document examiner?

Forensic document examiners (FDEs) are persons trained and experienced working with a broad range of questioned documents that fall into dispute during the investigation or litigation of a case. After examining the document or documents, the FDE must be prepared to offer opinions and the basis for the opinions. FDEs were commonly referred to as handwriting experts. However, the field has quickly changed with emerging technology so that a qualified examiner can no longer be primarily a handwriting expert, but must have training and experience in the technologies involved in creating documents. The FDE provides professional opinions on the genuineness of writings and documents, writes reports, prepares exhibits, and testifies for legal proceedings as needed.

2. What kinds of documents are commonly presented to the document examiner?

Signature and handwriting comparisons are still the most common assignment. Questions of whether a document has been fabricated or altered are also commonly presented to the forensic document examiner (FDE). These documents may be originals, facsimiles, PDF files, printed or copied documents or a combination, thereof. An increasing number of questioned documents have been fabricated or altered using computer graphics programs. Most currently, electronic signatures are becoming disputed. The FDE must keep current with this ever changing technology and its impact on document examination.

3. What should I look for when hiring a document examiner?

4. How does one become trained as an FDE?


Not easily. There is still no college degree in forensic document examination in the United States. However, a prospective trainee must now have a college degree and find a government agency or an FDE in private practice willing to take on the responsibility of a trainee. Those interested in becoming FDEs should consider obtaining an undergraduate degree in a science such as computer science to prepare for current and future developments in electronic signatures and documents that are becoming an increasing part of the FDE's casework.  After obtaining a degree in a science, the next step would be to consider obtaining a masters degree in forensic science.

An introduction to the field is provided by the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology at East Tennessee State University in four online courses. The student receives a certificate upon successful completion of these courses. You won't be a qualified FDE after completing these courses, but you should have a better idea if you want to pursue this field as a career.

5. Do I need original documents?

Original documents are preferable as they can be tested with different devices. Every effort should be made to obtain originals during the course of litigation. A document examiner who refuses to examine copies, however, may be doing a disservice to the client. Take the case of the frantic attorney who called because the examiner in her area would only work with original documents. During a preliminary review of the facsimile documents, it took only few minutes to see that a facsimile copy of a genuine signature was the same signature used to create the questioned document. Most experienced document examiners today can do an initial review of the documents to see if the evidence warrants moving forward without the originals.

6. What kind of clients seek the assistance of a forensic document examiner?

Attorneys are usually the most frequent clients, followed by licensed private investigators, corporate security, human resource departments, and sometimes an individual. It is preferable that individuals consult with or retain an attorney before hiring a document examiner. The case then can proceed under the direction of the attorney who is in a better position to know the laws of your state. The attorney is also in a better position to obtain through discovery any additional documents the examiner may need. Furthermore, the examiner and the attorney will have a work privilege while the examiner is serving as a consultant. This usually means that work is confidential until the attorney decides that the FDE will be disclosed as the testifying expert. This is a protection for the attorney's client.