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4 Notary Lessons From The ‘Tiger King’ Will Dispute

Notaries almost never make the news. And when they do, it’s usually because they are ensnared in some type of scandal involving documents they may — or may not — have notarized. Such is the case of a will and power of attorney supposedly signed by multimillionaire Don Lewis, co-owner of a Tampa, Florida, wildlife sanctuary whose 1997 disappearance and possible murder was featured in this spring’s Netflix true crime mini-series “Tiger King.”

And smack in the middle of the case is the Notary whose seal and signature appear on both documents. Consequently, the case illustrates 4 crucial lessons:

  • The value of maintaining a Notary journal — even if not required by law
  • The importance of safeguarding your Notary seal
  • The importance of the information in a journal entry
  • The need to preserve your Notary journals for a long time

The Facts Of The Case

On November 21, 1996, Lewis signed a will and power of attorney, replacing his existing will and POA. Both documents also were allegedly notarized by a Florida Notary who worked for him as housekeeper and whose Notary seal appears on the two instruments, according to media reports.

Florida Notary law does not require its Notaries to keep journals of their notarizations, and the Notary in question did not keep a record of her notarial acts. Lewis mysteriously disappeared in August 1997 and was declared legally dead in 2002.

The new will and power of attorney are being called forgeries in a battle between the usual parties — the family members left out of the will and the purported beneficiaries under the new documents. Handwriting experts have concluded that the signatures of Lewis and the witnesses appear suspicious and were likely traced on one or both documents. 

While the Notary claims to have no recollection whatsoever about notarizing the documents, her recollections are reaching back almost a quarter century.

4 Notary Lessons

Lesson 1: If the Notary had maintained and preserved a chronological journal of her notarizations, and if she did not notarize the 1996 documents, she could definitively have testified that she had not done so. Why? Because her Notary journal would not have included an entry for the two documents of November 21, 1996. A Notary journal can protect innocent Notaries against forged notarizations perpetrated in their names.

Lesson 2: If the notarizations in question were forgeries, how did someone else get ahold of the Notary’s official seal, which appears on the two 1996 documents? This issue leads to the second important lesson. Notaries must carefully guard their Notary seals, keeping seals under their exclusive control at all times. There was some evidence in this case that, upon renewing her commission, the Notary’s new seal was sent to an address other than the Notary’s. Do not ever do that.

Lesson 3: If the Notary had kept a thorough Notary journal, and if the two new notarizations had really been performed, the journal entry itself should have included the signatures of Lewis and the two witnesses. These signatures would have provided valuable contemporaneous signatures for comparison by forensic writing experts, and would have provided compelling evidence that Lewis and the witnesses actually appeared before the Notary for the two notarizations. This additional information would have been helpful in a mystery like this one.

Lesson 4: Notary journals should be kept for long periods of time. Why? Consider that this case started with documents allegedly notarized in 1996. That is not unusual. Questions about notarizations may not arise for years. That is particularly true for documents such as wills, powers of attorney and health care surrogate forms. Other documents, like deeds, mortgages, loan forms and contracts, may be notarized and casually filed away for months or years before they really become central to transactions.

In either case, the notarizations may have been treated as routine at the time and may not have been scrutinized in detail. Then, months or years later, the notarizations may come under the microscope — either to help establish the documents are legitimate or invalid.

In addition, legal proceedings can take very long times.

The first time I ever testified as a Notary expert was almost exactly ten years to the day after the notarization in question had been performed — and the case continued on for three more years on appeal until it was finally concluded. That’s 13 years in total. So, Notaries should preserve their journals for decades — just in case.

Conclusion

Sadly, “I can’t remember” is the almost universal refrain from Notaries who have testified in a reported legal proceeding challenging the validity of one of their notarizations and who have not maintained a Notary journal.

As trusted public officials responsible for verifying the integrity of the signatures on important documents, Notaries possess the ethical obligation to exercise reasonable care in several respects — including the duty to be able to present evidence to demonstrate whether we have performed the notarizations in question. This is true whether the question arises days, weeks, months or years later.

Document signers who come to us for notarizations do not ask our service for only so long as our unassisted memories of their notarizations remain intact. Notaries have the ethical responsibility to prepare and preserve Notary journal entries for all official acts in order to assist recollection of the notarizations we perform.

Besides including the basic information in journal entries, Notaries should record something memorable about each notarization or its parties to help Notaries recall the circumstances in the future. Remember, your most valuable tool is the Notary journal.

Michael Closen is Professor Emeritus at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois. A respected consultant on model Notary statutes and legislation, Closen served on the drafting committees for The Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility and various editions of the Model Notary Act, and recently authored Professor Closen’s Notary Best Practices: Expert's Guide to Notarization of Documents.

2 Comments

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seabea@comcast.net

30 Jun 2020

Once again, thanks for your expert advice. My state did not require a journal when I first started out, but I kept one anyways. I am retired now, but I have kept my journals in safe keeping with instructions what to do with them upon my passing.

Erica Layman

06 Jul 2020

California does not have a set requirement of how long Notaries must keep completed journals, just until your commission expires and is not renewed, then all completed journals are turned over to the county in which the commission was issued. In California, counties are then allowed to destroy a journal if no request is made for the record after 10 years. In a case like "Tiger King," if the notary had retired or died in the intervening 25 years, it's very likely the county couldn't have produced the record either.

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