Several years back, Rodriques Best got married. The couple bought a home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Then they divorced. Rodriques received the home by quitclaim in the divorce settlement. The couple signed the paperwork with a notary, and submitted it for recording.
The notary, hired to help create the new deed with Rodriques as sole owner, made a mistake. It was the ex, not Rodriques, whose name went on the new deed.
The recorder of deeds, as usual, accepted the notarized document for recording. Notarized signatures on a deed signify that the county recorder’s office should accept an instrument as valid. Rodriques, too, thought everything was recorded correctly.
The quick takeaway from this story is clear, right?
Always check the deed before it’s filed.
Wait a minute. Rodriques is blind. He placed confidence in the notary to put the right information on the new deed.
A Storm Brewing
Many months passed before Rodriques learned what had happened. A severe hail storm damaged the roof. The homeowner’s insurance company agreed to cover the roof repairs. The payments arrived — but they were written out to Rodriques’s ex.
When Rodriques asked for the payments to be reissued under the right name, the company asked for a current copy of the deed. The company reviewed it, and informed Rodriques that he was not, in fact, named on the deed as the homeowner.
Reality dawned. The notary who drew up the new deed put the wrong name on it. Rodriques called the notary, who was shorthanded and couldn’t get to the issue at the moment. That’s when Rodriques called Greensboro, North Carolina’s investigative news channel, News 2.
After the news team got involved, the notary who made the error went to work to help sort out the problem. But a deed cannot be changed, once recorded.
So the ex-spouse had to be tracked down and sign a completely new deed, back over to Rodriques. An attorney drafted the new deed. The parties signed it. The instrument was filed and recorded in the county.
Finally, the home officially belonged to Rodriques — as ordered by the divorce court years ago.
Power and Public Trust
U.S. notaries can change lives. No wonder they commit to being neutral, honest, and diligent public servants. They may not discriminate or neglect legitimate requests from members of the public. They must be careful not to offer any suggestions that appear to be legal advice. They must safeguard their logs and notary seals, respect the privacy of the members of the public they serve, and disclose what they must, according to the oath they have taken. They must follow The Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility in every detail, and know the latest laws, policies, and regulations.
Notaries must also verify identification, to avoid fraud against true owners by impostors. So, for example, they must understand how to record a legally valid thumbprint on certain California real estate documents (only the ones that require it, and no others).
Ball-dropping can have serious results. For notaries, the consequences can include civil suits, ruined reputations and careers, loss of bond money, fines, criminal charges, and imprisonment.
Important note: When something looks suspicious, notaries should stop working and seek guidance from a state notary agency or the national notary hotline. To avert serious financial risk in case of mistakes, they should purchase bond and errors and omissions (E&O) insurance coverage. Notaries can look to the National Notary Association for more information.
Misconduct can run the gamut from failing to verify someone’s ID, to knowingly furthering crimes. Some notaries succumb to pressure — from lawyers or other professional colleagues, or from their loved ones or friends — to cut corners for the sake of convenience. Some perform notarizations on paperwork involving older people who don’t understand what’s being conveyed or agreed to. These are more than missteps — they are serious wrongs. And when a homeowner dies, property documents have to be signed by all the heirs who agree to a house sale. A notary can’t represent that someone necessary was there when they weren’t.
Most Common Misstep
As a matter of fact, skipping the requirement to authenticate and witness all key signatures has traditionally been the most common notarization problem. Even recently, the National Notary Association’s bulletin reported on a serious example…
A person who started a mobile notary service agreed to notarize deeds that conveyed four homes into the names of a couple in Cincinnati. This task involves notarizing the signatures of the transferors — the current homeowners. But the owners weren’t there to sign away their deeds. In fact, the owners of the four homes at issue had never signed the deeds. The couple was stealing the four homes right in front of the notary public.
After taking the deeds to the county recorder in Hamilton County, the couple of fraudsters would ultimately face a prison sentence. But what about the business owner who notarized multiple deeds without principal signers appearing? The notary was charged with tampering with public records in the course of the deed fraud. This was the end of the mobile notary business. And that doesn’t even get into the potential criminal charges that follow incidents like this.
A major job of a notary is to verify who’s who in a transfer. If, for example, the notary’s friend wants a document notarized without a spouse who should be present, the answer must be no. If a home is owned by a couple, the notary can’t gloss over the absence of one of them when the paperwork is signed. A notary who does this can face charges for fraud.
Does RON Change the Rules?
It’s important to note that today’s notaries do not always require signers to be present. Remote online notarization, or RON, is now legal in most states. This means meetings can and do occur through the use of audio-visual technology. Notary statements on documents now typically state whether the notarization was done in person or electronically, and exactly where people signed from.
Remote online notarization keeps a video that can be inspected later if needed. In some states, that recording is mandated. In others, it’s done as a best practice. Today’s remote online notarization technology is designed to be tamper-resistant and make missteps less likely.
Fundamentally, the rules aren’t changed. Whether in-person or online, the job of the professional who notarizes a deed is to identify signers, to ascertain their capability to sign voluntarily, understanding what is being signed, to witness their signatures, and to support the integrity of our system of property conveyance. Whether purposeful or just neglectful, missteps can have irreversible effects, and wrongs can take prodigious efforts to right.
Kevin Kennedy for WFMY News 2 (Greensboro, N.C.): Notary Botches Feed to Home, Puts Wrong Name on Document (Jun. 4, 2022).
Kelly Rush for the National Notary Association, via the National Notary Bulletin: Feature – Four Career-Ending Notary Mistakes (Dec. 15, 2020).
Kelle Clarke for the National Notary Association, via the National Notary Bulletin: Notary Tip – Thumbprints and Privacy Issues (updated Nov. 15, 2021).
Deeds.com: Notaries Go Remote: A Digital Shift Is Changing Notary Language (Apr. 14, 2021).