Notary Public

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, and that’s due in large part to my work on several complex cases involving challenges to deeds. So I figured since I’ve done a ton of legal research and writing on the subject in the actual cases, why not write about it?

When you think about undue influence and mental capacity, one conjures up the classic scene of the “evil” son putting a deed to the family house in front of a dying parent in the hospital, signing over the house and excluding all of the other siblings. Now, I’ve had a case where that actually occurred! But these cases run the gamut of situations.

These cases are often intra-family disputes, and can involve challenges to deeds and real estate transfers, as well as wills. Will contests are a different animal altogether, so I won’t cover those in this post. The common theme in these cases is that someone (say an heir of a deceased person or a sibling) is unhappy that a parent or sibling signed over a deed to someone else (say a brother or son) and thinks there was something nefarious behind it, and wants to essentially un-do that transfer.

Legal Standards Governing Deeds and Notaries Public

Let me start with some basics about the law of deeds and notarizations. In order to be considered enforceable and accepted for recording at the registry of deeds, a quitclaim deed must be executed before a notary public. A notary public’s job is essentially to ensure that the signatory is signing the deed is doing so freely and voluntarily. A Notary Public is governed by a comprehensive set of regulations under Executive Order No. 455 — Standards of Conduct for Notaries Public passed by Gov. Romney in 1994. A notary must examine a government issued form of identification in order to verify the identify of the person signing the deed. The notary does not have to make a medical or psychological determination as to whether the signatory is legally competent. Under the regulations, however, the notary is prohibited from notarizing a deed if the signatory “has a demeanor that causes the notary public to have a compelling doubt about whether the principal knows the consequences of the transaction or document requiring the notarial act,” or “in the notary public’s judgment, the principal is not acting of his or her own free will.”

A notary must also keep a journal of all notarizations performed (however, attorneys are exempt from this rule). The journal must contain the date, time and location of the notarial act, the signature, name and address of the person signing the document, the type of identification provided, and a description of the document notarized. The notary journal can prove to be a critical piece of evidence in a deed challenge case. (Note that the absence of a journal entry or journal itself does not render the deed or document invalid on its face).

Importantly, a notary public does not act as a lawyer or judge overseeing the legality of the deed or the conveyance in general. The regulations specifically provide that a “notary public has neither the duty nor the authority to investigate, ascertain, or attest to the lawfulness, propriety, accuracy, or truthfulness of a document or transaction involving a notarial act.”

Now this is very important. A quitclaim deed that is validly executed and acknowledged properly by a notary public and recorded with the registry of deeds is presumed by the law to be valid and enforceable. So how can someone challenge a deed which looks to be validly executed and notarized? Let me explain.

Undue Influence

Undue influence typically arises when the signatory to a deed (often elderly or mentally challenged) is under the influence of someone he or she trusts (often a close relative), and that person uses such influence to make them sign a deed under coercion or duress of some kind. The law defines undue influence as “whatever destroys free agency and constrains the person whose act is under review to do that which is contrary to his own untrammelled desire.” Four factors are usually present in a case of undue influence: (1) an unnatural disposition is made (i.e, the recipient would not otherwise have been entitled to own the property) (2) by a person susceptible to undue influence to the advantage of someone (3) with an opportunity to exercise undue influence and (4) who in fact has used that opportunity to procure the contested disposition through improper means. If undue influence can be established, a court can render the deed voidable and essentially undo the transaction in certain circumstances.  

Proof of undue influence is often challenging and involves recreating the circumstances of the deed signing and also examining the medical history of the person signing the deed many years ago. Medical records will need to be obtained. We often hire medical experts to give opinions on the victim’s neurological state. These cases are complex and can be expensive to litigate.

Lack of Mental Capacity

A person signing a deed must have a minimum level of mental capacity and awareness to know and understand what they are doing and that they are doing so under their free will. Mental capacity and undue influence often overlap. Lack of mental capacity may be found where a person may be affected by congenital deficiencies in intelligence, mental deterioration that accompanies old age, the effects of brain damage caused by accident or organic disease, and mental illnesses evidenced by such symptoms as depression, bipolar, or other neurological impairment. Like undue influence, proof of mental capacity can be challenging and involves medical records and expert medical witnesses as to the signatory’s mental state. A notary public should usually be the first line of defense in a situation where the signatory appears mentally incompetent, but often that does not happen or the signatory does not appear mentally challenged for the few minutes it takes to sign a deed. If lack of capacity can be established, a judge can invalidate the deed.

Forgery

Forgeries are a different situation all together. A forgery occurs when the person who is supposed to sign the deed did not sign it at all — someone else forged their signature on the document, and somehow had it notarized (often falsely). In my publicized forgery cases involving the accused criminal Allen Seymour, he allegedly forged victims’ signatures on deeds, then used a fake notary stamp on the deeds.

Under the law, if a deed is forged it is completely null and void — as if the deed never existed in the first place. Title reverts back to the original owner, and any subsequent good faith buyer or mortgage companies are out of luck. (That’s why you always get owner’s title insurance).

Proof of forgeries often requires a handwriting expert. Handwriting analysis is an interesting science, and I’ve dealt with it in several cases. Experts are usually former FBI agents or police detectives.

Litigating Challenges to Deeds

These cases are often brought in the Superior Court or Land Court under their quiet title jurisdiction. Sometimes they are brought in Probate Court. Claimants often seek a lis pendens (notice of legal claim) at the start of the case in order to prevent the property from being transferred or mortgaged while the case plays out. Sometimes, the signatory to the challenged deed is deceased, making the evidentiary history far more difficult to obtain and prove. Sometimes, the notary public is deceased or cannot be located. And sometimes the attorney who drafted the deed and participated in the signing has passed or cannot be located. Each case presents its own unique factual history and challenges.

It goes without saying that you need a very experienced real estate litigation attorney to handle this type of case. They are complex, both legally and factually, and can get very expensive, very quickly. But the stakes are usually quite high, with property values being so astronomical here in Massachusetts.

If you are dealing with one of these situation, please feel free to call (508-620-5352) or email me rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com, and I would be happy to take a look at your case.

Good luck, Rich

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Cases Subject of Attorney General and FBI Investigation, Oxford Man Under Arrest

Over the last month, I’ve been representing the victims in two significant forgery lawsuits, the likes and brazenness of which I have not seen in 20 years of practicing law. The matters are now the subject of criminal charges by the Attorney General’s Office.

As alleged in the two lawsuits, Allen J. Seymour, of Oxford, Massachusetts, is the alleged mastermind behind a sophisticated forgery scheme to defraud property owners out of their ownership to their homes. In one of the schemes involving a Brookline property, Seymour, using an alias, approached my client with a foreclosure assistance plan, getting him to execute a mortgage payoff form with an unusual second signature page. Unbeknownst to my client, that signature page was then attached to a quitclaim deed to a straw-person (an individual known as Kayla Turner, also of Oxford, MA), and recorded with the Norfolk Registry of Deeds. The straw-person then purported to sell the deal to local investors, with the sale proceeds wired to a bank account controlled by Seymour and his associates.

In another case involving a Cambridge property, a deed was forged using a fake notary public stamp, then sold to investors who took out a $2 Million mortgage loan against the property. My client found out about the scam when a locksmith arrived at his house, attempting to drill out his front door lockset. As alleged in the lawsuit and shown by records kept by the Secretary of State’s Office, the straw entity, the Dudley Group, LLC, used in the Cambridge transaction was managed by a Francis Foley III, who is a Lieutenant in the Newton, Massachusetts Police Department.

This is not Allen Seymour’s first run in with the law. He pled guilty in 2009-10 to a slew of federal and state crimes stemming from a similar foreclosure and mortgage fraud scheme in the Worcester County area whereby he defrauded homeowners out of millions of dollars. Seymour was arrested at a Florida airport in February 2008 with $1.37 million in cash hidden in his luggage. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

As a result of the lawsuits filed by my office and cooperation with the Attorney General’s office, Seymour was recently arrested in South Carolina. Seymour was arraigned in Brookline District Court on June 18, with bail set at $2.5 Million. Forgery (also known as uttering) of a deed is a felony with a maximum state prison sentence of 10 years.

I have filed a civil action in both cases to quiet title to the property, asking the court to reverse the fraudulent transactions. Under the law, a deed procured by forgery conveys no title. The cases are complicated because there are many parties involved and there have been mortgages recorded against the properties which will need to be discharged.

Early estimates are that up to $1,500,000 in sale proceeds were taken in these fraudulent transactions. The investors who purchased the properties are also pursuing Seymour and his associates.

I was recently interviewed by Fox News 25 (see video below) on these cases which are sure to attract some local media attention. There are also reports of many more potential fraudulent deals that were pending. If you have any knowledge of these, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

I will keep you updated with any important developments!

Related Links:  Read the Lawsuit in Anzalone v. Dudley Group LLC, Middlesex Superior Court; Nelson v. Chandler Cazanove LLC, Middlesex Superior Court

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A Path to Electronic Notary Acknowledgements

by Rich Vetstein on August 7, 2017

By Richard P. Howe, Jr., Registrar, Middlesex North Registry of Deeds

As young people who have known nothing but digital commerce enter the home ownership market, the conveyancing community in Massachusetts will face increased pressure to leave paper behind in favor of purely electronic closings. The statutory basis for this technological transition has been in place since 2004 with the adoption of MGL c.110G, the Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act. Since then, all registries of deeds in the commonwealth have implemented electronic recording systems. Still, some uncertainly remains, especially regarding acknowledgements.

Earlier this year I wrote about electronic acknowledgement statutes in other jurisdictions in “Remote electronic acknowledgments,” published in the March 2017 edition of REBA News. In the same article, I explained why registries of deeds in Massachusetts should record documents electronically acknowledged outside of Massachusetts, but not record those electronically acknowledgement within Massachusetts. The primary basis for that opinion was that Massachusetts law requires a notary to affix a notary stamp to an acknowledgement, and that our law provides no electronic equivalent of that notary stamp.

With the demand for electronic acknowledgements looming but not yet fully upon us, now is the time to amend our notary statute to accommodate new technological practices. The starting point for such an amendment should be a shared understanding of the purpose of an acknowledgement, particularly with regard to real estate documents.

In colonial Massachusetts, registries of deeds and the requirement that real estate documents be acknowledged arose simultaneously. The purpose of the registry was to provide a public record of who owned what land as a means of curtailing secret sales that muddled ownership and created uncertainty in real estate transactions. The purpose of requiring deeds to be acknowledged before recording was meant to curtail fraud, either in the guise of a forged signature or of an actual signature that was later denied by its maker.

Conceived in the seventeenth century, the rationale for these rules, and the rules themselves, persist today. Registries of deeds perform the same core function of making public real estate ownership records, using new technology to do it.

So what is the core function of an acknowledgement? Primarily, it is to assure the public that the person who signed a document is who he or she purports to be. In Massachusetts, a notary does this by personally witnessing the signing of the document while positively identifying the person who signed it. The notary attests to this by signing the acknowledgement clause, printing his name and the expiration date of his notary commission underneath his signature, and then affixing his notary stamp to the document.

MGLc.222, s.8 requires a notary stamp to include “the notary public’s name exactly as indicated on the commission; the words ‘notary public’ and ‘Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ or ‘Massachusetts’; the expiration date of the commission in the following words: ‘My commission expires _____’; and a facsimile seal of the commonwealth.”

Not to minimize the importance of the facsimile seal of the commonwealth, but I am not sure how including that on an inked stamp that anyone, anywhere may purchase in any name from multiple vendors adds appreciably to the authenticity of a document or the signature upon it. To me, the basic reason for requiring a notary to include identifying information such as a printed name and a commission expiration date in the acknowledgement clause is to help identify and locate the notary if questions arise about the document.

While the notary stamp does require those two bits of information, so does the notary clause itself, which seems to make the notary stamp superfluous. Perhaps it would be more useful to assign each notary public a unique identifying number, much like an attorney’s BBO number, and require that number to be included in the acknowledgement clause in lieu of a stamp. Such a unique number would expedite the identification of the notary and his whereabouts. It would also be easy and inexpensive to implement, both on paper and in electronic form.

In reviewing electronic acknowledgement statutes already adopted elsewhere, it seems that many states have created a dual commission regime, one for regular notaries, the other for electronic notaries. Other places require notaries to invest in sophisticated (and presumably expensive) technology that renders the electronic document being acknowledged tamper-proof. Perhaps the tasks assigned notaries in other jurisdictions are more complex than those in Massachusetts, but both of these practices – a dual commission system and requiring sophisticated software of electronic notaries – greatly exceed anything now required or expected of notaries in this commonwealth.

In crafting rules for electronic acknowledgements in Massachusetts, we should strive to duplicate the functions now being performed by our notaries while allowing those functions to be performed on tablets and computer screens, not just on paper. Complex and expensive systems are not needed to do this, and such additional requirements would needlessly delay our ability to keep pace with the evolving expectations of those we serve.

Dick Howe has served as register of deeds in the Middlesex North Registry since 1995.  He is a frequent commentator on land records issues and real estate news.  Dick can be contacted by email at richard.howe@sec.state.ma.us

Reprinted with permission from the REBA Blog.

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licensenotary-public-2An Act Regulating Notaries Public to Protect Consumers And The Validity And Effectiveness Of Recorded Instruments

On October 6, 2016 Governor Charlie Baker signed Chapter 289 of the Acts of 2016, An Act Regulating Notaries Public to Protect Consumers And The Validity And Effectiveness Of Recorded Instruments. The Act is a product of cooperation between the Real Estate Bar Association and the title industry. The Act officially codifies Mitt Romney’s Executive Order No. 455 (04-04), which in 2004 reformed the standards of conduct for notaries.  It also codifies the prohibition that a notary public cannot oversee and conduct a real estate closing; only a licensed attorney can handle closings. It also addresses several bankruptcy court rulings which called into question the effectiveness of notary acknowledgements involving powers of attorney.

Unauthorized Practice of Law
In the last decade, the practice of so-called “witness-only closings,” or “notary closings,” by non-lawyer notaries has spread from other states to Massachusetts. This practice has been vigorously opposed by REBA which filed a successful lawsuit effectively barring the practice in REBA v. National Real Estate Information Services, 459 Mass. 512 (2011). The Act codifies the rule of law that a non-attorney notary may only notarize documents but may not conduct a real estate closing. Only licensed attorneys may conduct real estate closings in Massachusetts.

Title Curative Provisions

Recent rulings from the Bankruptcy Court called into question the validity of mortgages with notary acknowledgements involving powers of attorney. The result of these rulings were that many mortgages were held null and void due to defective acknowledgements. The Act addresses these issues by providing, among other things:

● A revision to the standard acknowledgment clause, when the document is executed by the signatory in other than an individual capacity, to assist the notary in making clear that the document is the voluntary act of the principal, not merely the signatory [M.G.L. c. 222, § 15(b)]
● Notaries may vary from the forms set forth in the statute if they are using a form that is authorized or required by statute, regulation or executive order, including one executed in a representative capacity by one who acknowledges his voluntary act but fails to acknowledge the deed or instrument as the voluntary act of the principal or grantor [M.G.L. c. 183, § 42, as revised] [M.G.L. c. 222, §§15(h), 20]
● Failure to state that a document signed by an attorney in fact or in another representative capacity is in fact being signed as the voluntary act of the principal, not merely the signatory, shall not make the document invalid.  [M.G.L. c. 222, § 20(b)(iii)]

Other Provisions

Chapter 289 includes most of the Executive Order’s provisions, some in a modified form. The legislation also added other new provisions in M.G.L. cc. 183 and 222 —

● Notaries shall continue to maintain a chronological official journal of notarial acts, except that attorneys and their office staff shall continue to be exempt from this requirement.  [M.G.L. c. 222, §§ 12, 22, 24]
● Requirements for the notarial seal or stamp (expiration date affixed, exclusive property of the notary, etc.), except that a failure to comply shall not affect the validity of any instrument or the record thereof [M.G.L. c. 222, § 8, as revised]
● Qualifications for a notary; the grounds for which the Governor may decline an application for appointment or renewal of a notary commission, and the seven-year term of office, all as incorporated into the statute [M.G.L. c. 222, §§ 13, 14]
● Types of notarial acts that a notary may perform and prescribed forms for an acknowledgment, jurat, signature witnessing or copy certification [M.G.L. c. 222, § 15]
● Obligations of the notary to determine the appropriateness of the circumstances under which the notary is asked to perform a notarial act (identity and demeanor of the principal, incomplete notarial certificates, no undue influence by the notary, the notary’s relationship to the transaction or to the parties, etc.) [M.G.L. c. 222, §§ 16, 19, 20]
● Prohibition against notarizing signatures of family members shall not apply to notaries who are Massachusetts attorneys, as when the attorney takes the acknowledgement of an employee family member who witnesses a will, as provided in the Executive Order, but also if the family member employed by the attorney is the notary who takes the acknowledgement of the attorney.  [M.G.L. c. 222, § 16(a) (vii)]
● Failure of a document to contain the statutory forms shall not have any effect on the validity of the document or the recording thereof.  [M.G.L. c. 222, §§ 16, 19, 20]
● Notary public’s commission may be revoked for official misconduct, or for other good cause.  [M.G.L. c. 222, §§ 1, 26]

For more information, go to the Mass.gov Notary Public Page.

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