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Forensic Document Examiner

Forensic document examiners offer chemical analysis of documents. They can tell you if a signature is real or if a certain person wrote something.

"There are really two types of forensic document examiners," explains Sharon Tschirhart, an examiner in Texas.

"The document examiners can usually do chemistry analysis of ink, toner and paper. The other type is called a forensic handwriting expert. They can determine whether handwriting or printing is authentic or forged. They can also identify or eliminate a person who wrote a particular writing.

"There are also examiners that cover both areas."

Brian Lindblom is a forensic document examiner. He says most document examiners do both the chemical analysis and the handwriting identification.

But there are some special chemical tests that might only be done by a smaller group of experts. It's kind of like a specialty within a specialty.

Tschirhart is an example of a forensic handwriting expert. She examines and identifies signatures, handwriting, hand printing and numbers on all types of documents. Her job is to make educated judgments about the handwriting or printing.

"Each document comes with its own set of problems," she says. "One could be a signature that is being questioned and another could be a terrorist letter."

For example, she might receive the signature of someone named John Smith. Her client would tell her that it's believed to be a fake. So Tschirhart would need other things that John Smith had recently signed to determine whether he also signed the document in question.

Or the client might say they believed Mary Jones signed John Smith's name. In that case, Tschirhart would need Mary Jones to sign as John Smith. She would then compare the two.

"First, the documents are visually examined to familiarize myself with the problem," Tschirhart says.

"If it is an original, I will use various instruments. I look for stops and starts of the pen and other signs of forgery. Then in comparing the known sample to the questioned one, I look at each individual stroke and compare it to the original."

Lindblom says his basic job is to examine documents whose authenticity is in question.

"Documents come into question for a variety of reasons," he says. "For example, the signature on a business contract may be disputed. Or a page in a last will and testament may be suspected of being a substitute sheet.

"There may be concerns that the value of a check has been raised. Or someone might claim that a doctor has rewritten a page, or pages, in a patient's medical chart. All of the above examples would require the documents to be examined forensically."

Forensic document examiners do these analyses for a range of clients. These include law firms, private corporations, investigation agencies, forensic accountants, unions and banks.

Regulatory bodies also use the services of document examiners. Regulatory bodies govern the activities of professionals such as doctors, nurses, lawyers, chiropractors or engineers.

Forensic document examiners may have to testify in court or before those regulatory bodies.

"Testimony is required to support our findings," says Lindblom. "Detailed charts are often used to demonstrate findings and help make complicated examination issues more clear."

"Very few cases actually go to court," says Tschirhart. "I would say that we go to deposition much more than actual court."

Deposition is testimony given under oath. The information is written down or otherwise recorded. Then it can be used in court at a later time.

You need money to set up shop.

"To purchase the needed equipment, initial advertising and schooling, I believe that $10,000 would be a good place to start," says Tschirhart.

"You can count on everything going back into the business for at least the first year because of additional training -- which is continuous -- organizational dues and more equipment. Also, one needs to apprentice with a professional for at least two years and an apprentice does not get paid or, if so, paid very little."

The apprenticeship is important because there is no formal education available for this type of work in North America.

"The apprenticeship program of two to three years is considered by most government and police laboratories to be the minimum period of time that a trainee will need to study the subject matter necessary to become competent in the field," says Lindblom.

"Furthermore, there are various professional bodies -- such as the Canadian Society of Forensic Science, [the] American Academy of Forensic Science and the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners -- that require a training program of this length to qualify for a membership."

Tschirhart adds that a college degree is also required. "It doesn't matter what your degree is in. The court just appreciates knowing someone has the ability to learn. Chemistry, criminology, physical science and psychology are good education choices for this career."

The Association of Forensic Document Examiners states that a degree is required for those wishing to enter this field. It also indicates that certain traits, such as an analytical mind and a sharp eye for detail, are important.

According to Tschirhart, most forensic document examiners in the U.S. currently earn in the range of $150 to $200 per hour.

There are things that both Tschirhart and Lindblom like about their careers.

"I like digging into the 'problem' of handwriting," says Tschirhart. "It is very detailed work and you need to figure out the answer to each individual document problem. I also love court testimony."

Lindblom finds the always-changing requirements intriguing. "The variety of issues that must be answered and the new examination techniques that must be learned maintain one's interest in the field," he says.

But there are also drawbacks.

"Within the private sector, the examiner must be prepared to work on very short deadlines and often in a stressful environment," says Lindblom. "The clients -- lawyers primarily -- can be extremely demanding."

And the money is not always steady. "You do not work eight hours a day, so your money comes in sporadically," says Tschirhart. "You make good money, but you must learn to manage it wisely."

There are no statistics available for this specialty field. But Tschirhart says the future is rosy. "The business is wide open in the United States and the outlook is good. There are approximately 600 independent examiners and a couple hundred FBI, etc."

However, she does add a note of caution.

"The FBI do not consider the independent examiners as experts," she says.

"You will also find certain groups that do not consider anyone being certified outside their group as an expert. I have over 35 years' experience in the field and I always face someone on the opposing side that will say that I am not qualified because I don't belong to their group."

If you have a sharp eye and mind, like figuring out puzzles and are looking for a career that's a little bit different, forensic document examining just might fit the bill.


Association of Forensic Document Examiners
This professional organization also has student members

National Association of Document Examiners
A private nonprofit organization

Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners
This site includes information on pens, paper, typewriters, photocopiers and other document-related topics

American Academy of Forensic Sciences
A professional society with more than 5,000 members

American Society of Questioned Document Examiners
Check out the Links section

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