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Notary Bulletin

How Notaries Can Help Fight Elder Abuse

Dishonest people often prey on the elderly by tricking, bullying or otherwise influencing them to sign property over to the perpetrator. Yet, Notaries are ideally positioned to help prevent these crimes simply by performing their duties with professionalism and care.

Common forms of elder abuse involve tricking or pressuring elderly persons to sign documents giving someone else control of their assets or affairs. However, these documents — for example, powers of attorney, real property deeds or wills — usually cannot take effect without being notarized. By carefully following best practices of notarization and staying alert for signs of abuse, Notaries can help protect signers from losing their property to would-be crooks.

Warning signs of potential elder abuse during a notarization include the following:

A third party trying to coerce or pressure the elderly signer. If an older signer appears to be bullied or compelled by someone else in the room to sign the documents in question, and the signer appears distressed or hesitant, the signer may be under duress. If the Notary sees this, the third party should be asked to leave the room so the Notary can speak privately with the signer and confirm that the signer is willing. If the third party refuses, or the signer indicates unwillingness to the Notary, the notarization should be halted immediately.

Attempts to physically guide the signer’s hand to write. Do not proceed with any notarization if a signer is physically unable to write without assistance, or a third party tries to physically move the signer’s hand to sign. The third party may be attempting to falsify a signature with the signer unwilling but unable to physically resist. If a signer cannot at least make an “X” or other mark that can be notarized as a signature by mark, the Notary should decline the notarization.

A confused or unaware signer. If the signer appears unaware of what is going on, confused or cannot communicate clearly, do not proceed with the notarization even if asked to do so by another person. A dishonest third party may be trying to take advantage of a medical condition or the effects of medication the signer is taking. Offer instead to reschedule the notarization for a time when the signer is more lucid and aware.

Any request to notarize without the signer’s actual physical presence or to ignore other discrepancies. If another person asks the Notary to notarize a signature without proper identification or personal appearance, the Notary should immediately be on guard against fraud, even if the person making the request is a family member or friend of the signer. In one Long Beach, California, case, a Notary was tricked into notarizing a questionable document by a man defrauding his own grandfather. Notaries should never take acknowledgment of a signature without personal appearance and satisfactory evidence of identity, as asking Notaries to ignore basic rules is a common tactic used to commit document fraud.

If a Notary sees signs of possible abuse of an elderly or any other signer during a notarization, the Notary should note the information in a journal entry even if the notarization is not concluded, and notify local law enforcement. Many states and cities also maintain protective services organizations or elder abuse hotlines for reporting possible elder abuse.

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