Challenges to Deeds: Forgeries, Undue Influence, Mental Capacity, and Defective Notarizations
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 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.
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 [email protected], and I would be happy to take a look at your case.
Good luck, Rich