In Daytona Beach, a suspect has pleaded “not guilty” to organized fraud. The crime involved two homes, stolen by deed fraud, with multiple notaries enlisted as part of the scheme.
The Volusia County, Florida suspect faces a first-degree felony charge, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. He is accused of creating fraudulent quitclaim deeds indicating that prior property owners (who are dead) had willingly transferred their homes.
Notary Know-How Was Nowhere to Be Found
In Florida, the person who transfers real estate must sign a deed in front of a notary public and two witnesses. But the notarizations on these deeds didn’t adhere to Florida requirements.
So, how were the notaries used in the scheme?
The con artist, a resident in the area where the people had died, quickly looked up local notaries and went to them with the improper deed. But why did the notaries assist in the fraud? Here are the explanations:
- One notary later claimed not to understand how a quitclaim deed worked, having only been a notary for a year and a half at the time. This person notarized the deed although it was mostly blank, and despite the absence of the owner. Well, the owner’s ghost, given that the named transferor was now deceased. The notary said the suspect found the notary business online; the notary was not in on the action.
- Another notary claims to have refused to verify the document, and thinks the fraudster or his accomplice walked off with the rubber notary seal and faked the notarization. In this case, one of the deceased owner’s survivors figured out that fraud was afoot.
Pro tip: Homeowners and their representatives can set up property fraud alert messages in Volusia and several other counties in Florida, and in counties in many states nationwide.
Rest in Peace? The Vulnerability of a Deceased Title Holder
A few days after Charles Gadson died in his Daytona Beach home, the county deed recorder accepted a quitclaim deed that appeared to transfer the home from Gadson to another person. That other person lived across the street. Gadson didn’t know him.
Gadson’s surviving sister says the signature on the deed doesn’t even look like Gadson’s.
Five months later, the suspect evidently sold the Gadson property to another person—a real estate investment business owner, who recorded the new deed in the name of the company. The business owner believed the home was the seller’s inherited property. The business owner began paying property taxes on the home.
Gadson’s distraught sister filed a complaint against the business owner in the Governor Ron DeSantis’s office, attempting to recover the house. Reportedly, neither the local authorities nor the governor’s office took action to help Gadson’s sister.
Finally, the sister decided to call a local investigative news team. The News 6 team tracked down the culprit — who turned out to be using the same tactics in multiple cases.
The Florida D.A. subsequently filed felony charges against the alleged perpetrator of an organized scheme to defraud. The court date is yet to be determined.
The notary’s commission is reportedly under review.
“With Friends Like This”? Deed Forged at the Expense of Suspect’s Incarcerated Friend
Another deed in the investigation involves an incarcerated “friend” of the same suspect. After the inmate’s mother died, no one took her name off the house deed. But the imprisoned son considered himself the heir to the family home in Daytona Beach.
Here again, the Volusia County fraudster took advantage of a vulnerable person by fabricating a quitclaim deed. It appeared to be a deed signed over by the mother. But she’d been dead four years on that date.
The notary involved, who owns a mobile notary service, would later tell investigators she did meet the suspect for a deed signing. The notary didn’t go through with the act because she didn’t like that the deed was handwritten, not printed. She says her signature on the quitclaim deed is a fake.
Fraud Avoidance Tip: Take the Late Owner’s Name Off the Title
When a homeowner dies, surviving co-owners sometimes don’t take any action to update the title. Typical situations (and recommendations) for a survivor look like these:
- A sole owner dies: This house title will go into probate court, which will remove the deceased owner from the title. The personal representative should have the court deed signed and notarized, and recorded in the property’s county.
- A deceased homeowner left no will: State intestacy law directs the assets to relatives. The probate process takes care of removing the name of the deceased owner from the title. Here again, the personal representative deed must be signed, notarized, and recorded.
- The deceased owner held the property as a tenant in common: Here, the deceased person’s ownership interest goes into probate. The probate court takes care of removing the late owner’s name from the title. The personal representative passes the real estate along, as the will (or intestacy law) directs.
- The deceased owner is survived by a joint owner with rights of survivorship or a tenant by the entirety: The surviving joint owner continues to own the property, inheriting the deceased person’s interest by operation of law when the other owner dies. Although there’s no need for probate, the surviving owner should record an affidavit of survivorship, thereby taking the deceased person off the title.
- A surviving spouse co-owned the real estate as community property: The deceased spouse’s or domestic partner’s interest fully passes upon death to the surviving co-owner. Did the couple draw up a community property agreement? Then the surviving co-owner may record it to clear the home’s title without probate. Otherwise, the probate court will transfer the title into the surviving owner’s name.
- When there’s a transfer on death deed: Some states allow for a transfer of real estate to a designated beneficiary automatically, without probate. The procedure upon death is state-based. The beneficiary typically records an official copy of the owner’s death certificate, accompanied by a state-specific affidavit to accompany the recorded transfer on death deed.
If the house doesn’t go through probate, check state law for what’s required and then take the time to remove a deceased owner from the title by deeding the home over to the beneficiary’s name. Gather up the house title, the documentation of the late owner’s death, the lack of probate affidavit form and the preliminary change of ownership report (PCOR) form. Expect to pay a county processing fee for recording the transfer of title. Receive the new title deed and keep it safely together with your important documents.
Dealing with title work after a death is hard work — but it’s important to keep a home’s title safe from fraud. An experienced attorney in your state can provide the necessary guidance for following state and county requirements.
Mike DeForest for WKMG Orlando Channel 6, a division of Graham Media Group, via ClickOrlando.com: Man Accused of Stealing, Selling Dead Man’s Home Arrested in Volusia County – News 6 Investigation Prompts Arrest Over Fraudulent Deeds (Sep. 12, 2022).
Deeds.com: Should You Remove a Deceased Owner from a Real Estate Title? (Sep. 23, 2019).
And as linked.
Photo credits: Tima Miroshnichenko and RODNAE Productions, via Pexels.