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Q&A: Elder Abuse

Seniors often need important documents drafted and notarized with the help of attorneys. But as seniors are among the most targeted victims of abuse and fraud, Notaries should be extra watchful for warning signs. The Legal professionals Section recently spoke with Bernard Krooks of the elder law firm Littman Krooks LLP in New York City about this issue.

How important are Notaries to the legal process in identifying potential elder coercion or fraud?
In many cases it’s difficult to identify elder financial abuse. Notaries are in an ideal position to spot any tell-tale signs due to their careful screening of signers for willingness and awareness.

What are the most common red flags?
The biggest red flag is when the elder signer is not coherent, appears unable to focus or doesn’t appear cognizant of where they are, or asks repeated questions. If they are accompanied by a relative, caregiver or other third party and if that third party holds the elder’s hand, tells them where to sign, or seems over-anxious to hurry up and finish, it could indicate the elder is being taken advantage of.

What immediate steps should a Notary take when they suspect a problem?
If the Notary spots indications of confusion or fraud, the notarization should be halted, the situation should be documented and the attorney supervising should be notified. If a third party is involved, we suggest talking to the elder signer alone for 5-10 minutes to make sure they understand and are signing willingly. If the third party objects to this, that’s a sign of a major problem.

What if it’s an attorney pressuring the signer?
The Notary still needs to refuse to notarize, contact someone else at the firm and file a memo about the incident. While it’s hard to put your job on the line, we all have to be responsible for what’s right and what’s wrong. A Notary could lose their commission or even face criminal charges if they agreed to an improper notarizations that led to elder fraud.

What other advice can you provide legal professional Notaries?
Signs of elder abuse can be subtle. This is not something that always jumps off the table and is obvious. But Notaries should be vigilant in their role as one of the gatekeepers to prevent elder abuse. If they think something is wrong, they shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. It’s for the senior’s protection.

Key Points:

  • Notaries are in an ideal position to spot elder abuse
  • The biggest red flag is when the elder signer is not coherent, cant focus or asks repeated questions
  • Notaries should refuse to notarize with any signs of elder abuse

David Thun is an Associate Editor at the National Notary Association.

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