Financial Elder Abuse And Exploitation In Arkansas

I have written before about our aging population and the effect that it will have on estate, trust, probate and inheritance litigation in the decades to come.  This stems from a number of demographic trends including (1) massive numbers of Baby Boomers entering retirement age and (2)  medical advances allowing people to live longer than ever before (but often with decreased physical and mental abilities).

An increasing number of older and incapacitated people will naturally result in an increasing number of elderly adults who are susceptible to, and actually subjected to,  abuse and exploitation.  This elder abuse can take a number of different forms, including physical, emotional, sexual and financial.  While all of these are bad, my focus for purposes of this blog post is on financial elder exploitation.  

There are agencies and organizations which play an educational and preventive role when it comes to elder abuse, but while doing good work they are often   overworked, understaffed and underfunded.  For example, Arkansas Adult Protective Services---a division of the Arkansas Department of Human Services---has a hotline number and is charged with the responsibility of investigating and intervening where there are reports of abuse, neglect, and exploitation of adults who are physically or mentally impaired and unable to protect themselves from harm.  

According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse

"Elder financial abuse spans a broad spectrum of conduct, including:

  • Taking money or property

  • Forging an older person's signature

  • Getting an older person to sign a deed, will, or power of attorney through deception, coercion, or undue influence

  • Using the older person's property or possessions without permission

  • Promising lifelong care in exchange for money or property and not following through on the promise

  • Confidence crimes ("cons") are the use of deception to gain victims' confidence

  • Scams are fraudulent or deceptive acts

  • Fraud is the use of deception, trickery, false pretence, or dishonest acts or statements for financial gain

  • Telemarketing scams. Perpetrators call victims and use deception, scare tactics, or exaggerated claims to get them to send money. They may also make charges against victims' credit cards without authorization

Who are the perpetrators?

Family members, including sons, daughters, grandchildren, or spouses. They may:

  • Have substance abuse, gambling, or financial problems

  • Stand to inherit and feel justified in taking what they believe is "almost" or "rightfully" theirs

  • Fear that their older family member will get sick and use up their savings, depriving the abuser of an inheritance

  • Have had a negative relationship with the older person and feel a sense of "entitlement"

  • Have negative feelings toward siblings or other family members whom they want to prevent from acquiring or inheriting the older person's assets

Predatory individuals who seek out vulnerable seniors with the intent of exploiting them. They may:

  • Profess to love the older person ("sweetheart scams")

  • Seek employment as personal care attendants, counselors, etc. to gain access

  • Identify vulnerable persons by driving through neighborhoods (to find persons who are alone and isolated) or contact recently widowed persons they find through newspaper death announcements

  • Move from community to community to avoid being apprehended (transient criminals)

Unscrupulous professionals or businesspersons, or persons posing as such. They may:

  • Overcharge for services or products

  • Use deceptive or unfair business practices

  • Use their positions of trust or respect to gain compliance

Who is at risk?

The following conditions or factors increase an older person's risk of being victimized:

  • Isolation

  • Loneliness

  • Recent losses

  • Physical or mental disabilities

  • Lack of familiarity with financial matters

  • Have family members who are unemployed and/or have substance abusers problems

Why are the elderly attractive targets?

  • Persons over the age of 50 control over 70% of the nation's wealth

  • Many seniors do not realize the value of their assets (particularly homes that have appreciated markedly)

  • The elderly are likely to have disabilities that make them dependent on others for help. These "helpers" may have access to homes and assets, and may exercise significant influence over the older person

  • They may have predictable patterns (e.g. because older people are likely to receive monthly checks, abusers can predict when an older people will have money on hand or need to go to the bank)

  • Severely impaired individuals are also less likely to take action against their abusers as a result of illness or embarrassment

  • Abusers may assume that frail victims will not survive long enough to follow through on legal interventions, or that they will not make convincing witnesses

  • Some older people are unsophisticated about financial matters

  • Advances in technology have made managing finances more complicated

What are the indicators?

Indicators are signs or clues that abuse has occurred. Some of the indicators listed below can be explained by other causes or factors and no single indicator can be taken as conclusive proof. Rather, one should look for patterns or clusters of indicators that suggest a problem.

  • Unpaid bills, eviction notices, or notices to discontinue utilities

  • Withdrawals from bank accounts or transfers between accounts that the older person cannot explain

  • Bank statements and canceled checks no longer come to the elder's home

  • New "best friends"

  • Legal documents, such as powers of attorney, which the older person didn't understand at the time he or she signed them

  • Unusual activity in the older person's bank accounts including large, unexplained withdrawals, frequent transfers between accounts, or ATM withdrawals

  • The care of the elder is not commensurate with the size of his/her estate

  • A caregiver expresses excessive interest in the amount of money being spent on the older person

  • Belongings or property are missing

  • Suspicious signatures on checks or other documents

  • Absence of documentation about financial arrangements

  • Implausible explanations given about the elderly person's finances by the elder or the caregiver

  • The elder is unaware of or does not understand financial arrangements that have been made for him or her."

In Arkansas, if the elder abuse is bad enough it can actually constitute a criminal offense and be prosecuted.  For example, Ark. Code Ann. Sec. 5-28-103 prohibits the abuse or exploitation of an endangered or impaired person, and Ark. Code Ann. Sec. 5-28-101 defines certain terms in the statute which encompass many types of wrongdoing, including financial abuse and exploitation.  Depending upon the amount of money or property misappropriated, the crime can constitute (1) a misdemeanor warranting a substantial fine or (2) a felony punishable by substantial prison time.  

However, it seems that prosecutors are often so overwhelmed with "street crimes" involving drugs, violence, sex, theft, etc. that "white collar" crimes involving financial exploitation (which often can be more difficult to prove) are frequently not pursued as a practical matter.  Accordingly,  the person aggrieved---or commonly someone acting for or on their behalf (because the elderly person may be incapacitated, or unable or unwilling to take action)---may necessarily be forced to resort to a civil court rather than a criminal court.  While such legal action will not result in the wrongdoer being criminally punished, depending upon the facts, circumstances and evidence they may be assessed with compensatory or potentially even punitive damages, along with attorney's fees, costs, and interest on the amounts misappropriated. 

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Power Of Attorney Problems---Who Has The Right To Try And Fix Them?

I have previously written about powers of attorney, which can be great estate planning tools in the right hands and terrible estate planning hands in the wrong hands ("licenses to steal").  

In other words, powers of attorney can be very useful for assisting persons with making financial and health care related decisions.  On the other hand, if the "agent" ends up taking advantage of the "principal" by carrying out acts which are not in the principal's interest (and which, for example, are instead in the agent's interest), the principal can be financially devastated (e.g., the agent could clean out the agent's bank account or sell their real estate, etc.)  or their health can be prejudiced (e.g., the agent could withhold treatment, etc.).  

Sometimes people other than the principal (perhaps the principal is incapacitated or deceased)  want to challenge the agent's actions, and a question of "legal standing" is raised.  Put another way, there is occasionally an issue regarding who if anyone besides the principal  has the right to challenge certain conduct carried out pursuant to a power of attorney.

In Arkansas that question is often answered by Ark. Code Ann. Sec. 28-68-116, which is the "Judicial Relief" section of the Uniform Power Of Attorney Act codified at Ark. Code Ann. Sec. 28-68-101, et seq.  The Uniform Law Comment to Ark. Code Ann. Sec. 28-68-116 states that "[t]he primary purpose of this section is to protect vulnerable or incapacitated principals against financial abuse."  

The statute says that:

(a)   The following persons may petition a court to construe a power of attorney or review the agent's conduct, and grant appropriate relief:

(1)   the principal or the agent;

(2)  a guardian, conservator, or other fiduciary acting for the principal;

(3)   a person authorized to make health-care decisions for the principal;

(4)   the principal's spouse, parent, or descendant;

(5)   an individual who would qualify as a presumptive heir of the principal;

(6)   a person named as a beneficiary to receive any property, benefit, or contractual right on the principal's death or as a beneficiary of a trust created by or for the principal that has a financial interest in the principal's estate;

(7)   a governmental agency having regulatory authority to protect the welfare of the principal;

(8)   the principal's caregiver or another person that demonstrates sufficient interest in the principal's welfare; and

(9)   a person asked to accept the power of attorney.

(b)   Upon motion by the principal, the court shall dismiss a petition filed under this section, unless the court finds that the principal lacks capacity to revoke the agent's authority or the power of attorney.

As one can see, a wide variety of individuals has the power to challenge actions taken under a power of attorney.  The Uniform Law Comment to this statute says that such "broad categories" serve the purpose of "[a]llowing any person with sufficient interest to petition the court" and this "is the approach taken by the majority of states that have standing provisions."

I have represented (1)  power of attorney agents, (2)  power of attorney principals, and (3)  family members and friends of power of attorney principals.   For the first group,  this statute is a good reminder that they need to be careful  acting under a power of attorney because any number of people have legal standing to challenge their conduct.  For the second and third groups, this statute allows for a wide array of persons to contest agent behavior which they perceive to be unfair to or indicative of exploitation of a principal.  

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

 

Presentation At The 2016 Arkansas Bar Association Annual Meeting

Today one of my law partners, Pat James, and I will be privileged to make a presentation at the Arkansas Bar Association Annual Meeting in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where over 1,200 lawyers and judges congregate every June for 4 days of continuing education seminars,  meetings, and socializing.   The title of our presentation is---not surprisingly given that you are reading this blog---"WEALTH WARS:   Arkansas  Estate, Trust, Probate And Inheritance Litigation."

The hour-long presentation is designed to be a broad overview, for the general practitioner, of numerous topics arising in this area of law.   For an A to Z listing of the topics to be discussed, inclusive of some written materials containing a checklist of common claims and causes of action; a checklist of common defenses; an exemplary case theme (the “fraud triangle”); a lengthy list of Arkansas statutes frequently arising in litigated estate and trust matters; and citations to a few helpful general and Arkansas-specific secondary materials,  please click on the following link:    Written Materials For June 2016 CLE Presentation 

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Brief Thoughts On Claims Of Undue Influence

As stated in my previous post regarding the capacity of a testator to execute a will or trust, the two concepts are closely related.  For example, incapacity relates to invalidation of a will, trust, deed, etc. because of the testator’s own deficiencies (typically mental impairment).  Undue influence, however, is when the will, trust, deed, etc. may be invalidated by the actions of others because they allegedly exercised such a degree of influence and power over the testator thatthey were induced to act by something other than free will.

As a general matter, the less testamentary capacity that one possesses, the less proof of undue influence will be necessary.  A presumption of undue influence may be triggered by a confidential relationship between the testator and someone who is receiving a benefit from the document, such that the burden of proof can shift to the proponent of the document to prove that there has in fact been no undue influence.  Unless there is “procurement” involved, in Arkansas the proponent merely has the burden of proving no undue influence by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not, as opposed to a higher standard such as beyond a reasonable doubt).

Obviously influence is ever-present and we are constantly influencing others to take certain actions.  This is especially true in the context of family and other close relationships.  However, mere influence doesn’t necessarily equate to taking advantage of someone.

Accordingly, while a testator may be legitimately influenced by his children, for example, the influence may go too far if the kids dictate or control the testator.  Likewise, the mere existence of a confidential relationship between the testator and the beneficiary, or a close and affectionate relationship, may not in and of itself constitute undue influence although it can in some instances have the effect of shifting the burden of proof.

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Brief Thoughts On Claims Of Incapacity

People often question whether a deceased person was mentally capable of executing or changing a will or trust.  Perhaps the person was suffering from dementia at the time.  The legal question involved in these situations is typically whether the decedent had the requisite “testamentary capacity.”  Testamentary capacity has generally been deemed to mean sufficient mental ability to (1) understand and remember, without prompting, the extent and condition of the testator’s property; (2) understand the “natural objects of their bounty;” and (3) understand to whom the property is being given and on what terms. 

Testamentary capacity is not a particularly high state of mental capacity, but it can be rebutted in some instances by evidence of Alzheimer’s Disease, severe forms of dementia, severe illness, intoxication, etc.  These conditions need to have actually existed at the time of execution of the instrument in question.  For example, the mere fact that mild dementia is diagnosed years before the execution of the instrument does not necessarily mean that the testator lacked capacity when they executed their will or trust, because even a lucid interval of capacity (and people suffering from dementia often have “good days” and “bad days”) can be deemed sufficient.    

Capacity issues are very fact-intensive determinations, and lack of capacity is often pretty difficult to prove.  This is why capacity claims are often coupled with “undue influence” claims, which are often related, frequently alleged in the addition or in the alternative, and sometimes easier to prove.  Undue influence will be discussed in my next post. 

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Demographic Trends Suggest More Estate, Trust And Probate Litigation In The Decades To Come

I have long been interested in demographic trends, emerging technologies, cultural changes, and shifting societal patterns.  For example, 20+ years ago when I was in college I read Alvin and Heidi Toffler's  "War And Anti-War," which while a bit dated now predicts how future wars will be fought (but with an eye toward peace and avoiding such conflicts).   Similarly, about 5 years ago I read George Friedman's "The Next 100 Years:  A Forecast For The 21st Century,"  which was an eye-opening look at how our  nation and world may likely look in the years and decades to come.  I highly recommend either book for some fascinating reading, and it will be interesting to someday see how accurate or inaccurate their predictions were.

 Then,  a couple weeks ago I came across a very interesting article by a Georgia attorney named John J. Scroggin, in Wealth Strategies Journal,  which focused in particular upon 30 positive and negative trends that will impact estate planning over the next several decades:  "Where Is The Estate Planning Profession Going?"    While I focus much of my law practice upon estate, trust and probate litigation---as opposed to estate planning and drafting of wills, trusts, and the like---the article still addressed my areas of interest and I thought I would share a couple excerpts here.  Better yet, lawyers and laypersons   should take the time to read the entire article  which not only encompasses great analysis but also contains good references to other articles, checklists, outlines, etc.

               For example, with regard to estate and trust litigation in general Mr. Scroggin opines that:

               "(9) Estate and Trust Litigation. As a result of the combination of poorly drafted  documents, dysfunctional families, incompetent fiduciaries, greedy heirs, inadequate  planning and poorly prepared fiduciaries, estate litigation has been booming in the last  few decades. This growth will continue.

               One consequence of the increased litigation will be an increased effort by both individual and institutional fiduciaries to make sure estate and trust instruments provide for strong  fiduciary protection. We should anticipate more protective provisions in fiduciary  instruments, including broader indemnity provisions for fiduciaries, modifications of the  normal fiduciary standards and investment polices, broader use of no contest clauses,  limited liability for delegated powers and limits (or increases) on disclosures to  beneficiaries. These changes will increase the need to create counter-balancing powers  designed to protect beneficiaries (e.g., a wider use of Trust Protectors and fiduciary  removal powers). As a result, there will be longer discussions with clients and the  complexity of the documents will increase."

               Related to the foregoing are Mr. Scroggin's thoughts on avoiding estate and trust litigation altogether, through conflict minimization:

               "(10) Conflict Minimization. The corollary to estate and trust litigation is planning  designed to mitigate the potential sources of intra-family estate conflicts. According to  the Wealth Counsel 6th Annual Industry Trends Survey, the top motivation for doing  estate planning was to avoid the chaos and conflict among the client’s heirs. Many clients  have an abiding desire to establish structures which minimize the potential points of  conflict and provide a mechanism to resolve future family conflicts. Clients want to  dispose of assets in a manner designed to minimize family conflict - leaving a legacy of  relationships rather than a legacy of conflict. This is a growing part of the discussion with  clients and a part of their planning documents. Solutions include using personal property  disposition lists, looking at real or perceived conflicts of interest when appointing  fiduciaries, or passing the family business only to the children running the business. As  noted above, attorneys will need to spend more time talking with clients about providing  greater protections to fiduciaries and creating counterbalancing protections for heirs.

 Many individual fiduciaries agree to serve without fully understanding the potential  liabilities and conflict they may be inserting themselves into. Should attorneys provide written materials (perhaps signed by the client and the fiduciary) detailing the  responsibility of the fiduciary, the risk of conflict and the means by which the drafter has  tried to minimize those exposures? Should attorneys more thoroughly advise their clients  on the necessary skill   sets needed by their fiduciaries - instead of just accepting the  client's choices at face value?"

  In sum, as I have written before on this blog, American society is rapidly changing.  The Baby Boomers have begun retiring over the last many years and will continue to do so over the next 2-3 decades.  Large sums of wealth have been acquired and will be transferred to younger generations.  People are living longer, and the aging population will be less competent due to Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of dementia which will lead to conflicts over whether a deceased person had the requisite capacity to execute a will or trust.  These and other trends strongly support the notion that there will be increasingly more estate, trust and probate litigation in the decades to come.

               Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at  mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Managing Someone Else's Money

 Estate, trust, power of attorney and probate disputes often develop due to disagreements over the manner in which someone managed another person's money. For example, the beneficiaries of a will might disagree with the executor's claim for fees related to administration of an estate.  Co-trustees might differ as to the best investments for maximizing the income and assets of a trust.  Two children might question the propriety of their third sibling's withdrawals of money from their mother's bank account, pursuant to a financial power of attorney that the mother apparently executed at some point in the past.

 To provide guidance in these situations, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has recently released 4 booklets entitled "Managing Someone Else's Money" which are intended for such persons as trustees, agents under powers of attorney, court-appointed guardians, and government fiduciaries.  Not only do they assist those who are honestly and legitimately attempting to assist in the management of money or property for a loved one, they also provide information on warning signs and things to look for when someone else is doing the managing of that person's finances.

 Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Stealing From Grandma And Grandpa---Inheritance Theft

A recent lengthy but interesting series of stories (Part I and Part II) on the odd heiress, Huguette Clark, appeared to prompt a good article yesterday from Bob Sullivan, who covers Internet scams and consumer fraud for msnbc.com.  Mr. Sullivan's posting focuses upon allegations and situations involving elder financial abuse, which is a significant portion of my own law practice.  I suggest that you read the article when you have a free moment, as it extensively summarizes a growing issue in this country and is obviously one in which you may very well have an interest if you regularly read or have merely stumbled upon my Blog.  

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Arkansas Court Of Appeals Rejects Cousin's Attempt To Set Aside Gifts To The Decedent's "Yardman"

One common thread running throughout this blog since its inception has been the issue of competency, i.e., the ability of a person to make informed decisions.  Conflicts often arise when ill or elderly people are claimed to have made signficant decisions regarding disposition of their property shortly before they died---sometimes the decision will be legitimate, the culmination of some long, thought-out plan that just never was memorialized on paper until shortly before their death---whereas sometimes the "decision" will be illegitimate, the product of undue influence or overreaching by a dishonest relative, family friend, or advisor.  Whatever the facts and circumstances, it can be difficult to prove that the person did not have competency to make the decision that they purportedly made.  A recent Arkansas Court of Appeals decision demonstrates that the outcome of these disputes usually boils down to the specific evidence that was presented to the trial court, and ultimately what evidence that the trial court found to be the most credible. 

For example, on March 3, 2010, the Court of Appeals ruled in the case of Deslauriers v. Marilyn Irene Deslauriers Revocable Trust, 2010 Ark.App. 211.  An appeal from Lonoke County Circuit Court, the appellant (Killeen) attempted to invalidate certain documents (quitclaim deed, revocable trust, will, etc.) executed by her cousin, the deceased, during and after her 2005 stay in a hospital due to a stroke.  As a result of those documents, the appellee (Richard, the deceased's "yardman") received the bulk of the cousin's estate.  Killeen filed suit after the cousin's death to contest the validity of the documents in question, contending that the cousin was not competent to execute them due to her medical condition. 

Under Arkansas law, the party contesting the validity of a will generally has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence ("more likely than not"), (1) that the decedent lacked mental capacity at the time the will was executed or (2) that the decedent was acting under undue influence.  The Deslauriers Court affirmed the trial court's ruling that the cousin attempting to set aside the documents did not satisfy that burden. 

Killeen presented the testimony of multiple doctors who had treated the deceased around the time of her execution of the documents, and they all testified  that she suffered from dementia and would purportedly be incompetent to sign the documents (though they were admittedly not in attendance at the signing).  Medical records also demonstrated a range of impairment (from mild to severe) at different times during the relevant time period.  Killeen likewise presented the testimony of two non-medical witnesses, one of whom contended that  the deceased was mentally incompetent (in their experience) and both of whom testified that the deceased intended to keep her property "in the family."

Richard presented the testimony of the lawyer whom the cousin used to prepare the documents in question, and he testified that he was very careful to determine whether his client was legally competent to execute the documents.  The attorney also testified that he had been hired to prepare a power of attorney so that Killeen and Richard could be placed in charge of the deceased's business affairs, and that Killeen herself believed the deceased to be an odd person but very competent.  Two other witnesses also testified, in a manner favoring Richard's position, to the extent that they were disinterested employees working at the hospital where the deceased was treated and they observed her as competent when they witnessed her signing of the will.   Richard also offered other evidence in the form of the attorney testifying that he met with the deceased several times after her initial execution of the documents, and in the  form of a doctor who treated the deceased remarking that he was impressed how mentally capable (though not physically capable) she remained after her stroke.

In sum, the trial court concluded that the cousin did not prove incompetency and that the deceased was sufficiently competent at the time that she executed the documents.  The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that while proof of medical condition around the time of the execution of the documents is relevant and important, ultimately the medical condition at the time of execution is paramount.  The Court seemed to attach particular significance to the testimony of the witnesses who were actually in the room when the decedent signed the documents in question.  Observing that it is possible for a testator to execute a document during a "lucid interval" in a period where they may otherwise be incompetent as a general matter, the case generally demonstrates the difficulty that a party can have in attempting to prove a testator's   incompetency. 

Questions About Notarized Document Result In Reversal Of Trial Court's Ruling

More times than I can count since I started practicing law, I have been involved in lawsuits in which the authenticity of a signature on a document was a primary disputed issue in the case.  Whether our law firm was representing the plaintiff who was suspicious of a signed document, or instead representing the defendant who was insisting upon the validity of a signed document, many of these situations entailed questions over how and/or when a notary public witnessed a person's signature.  The types of documents involved (e.g., wills, trusts, deeds, contracts, etc.) is as varied as the types of alleged misconduct (e.g., never actually witnessing the signature, backdating a document, failing to properly identify a signer, willfully stating as true a material fact known to be false, etc.).  Make no mistake---there are laws governing notaries and their actions, but for some reason often many notaries can get somewhat loosey-goosey regarding their obligation to strictly follow the letter of the law.

In any event, on October 22, 2009, the Arkansas Supreme Court intervened in such a dispute and reversed a trial court's ruling that a power of attorney transferring real property was valid.  In Jones v. Owen, 2009 Ark. 505, an appeal from Sebastian County Circuit Court, the Court considered a case involving disputed land, a father's will, and that father's power of attorney.  You can guess what happened, of course . . . the will said that the land went to X while the power of attorney ultimately resulted in the land being  conveyed to Y.  Litigation ensued and the trial court ruled that the power of attorney was valid.

In overturning that decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court concluded that the power of attorney was not valid and did not authorize the property to be transferred.  Specifically, in this instance the power of attorney was apparently acknowledged by a notary public prior to the decedent ever signing it.  That is, the notary public had signed the acknowledgment and left the date blank, which was later filled in by the attorney handling the transaction.  The Court ruled that in some circumstances a signature could be notarized without the notary public physically being there to witness the signature (e.g., after signing a grantor can appear before a notary and acknowledge his signature, a grantor can acknowledge his signature via a telephone call with the notary, etc.).  However, if the grantor never appears to acknowledge his signature, but the notary falsely certifies that the grantor did appear, then the acknowledgement will be deemed void. 

Moral of the story:  Notaries have a tremendous amount of power, as they add a significant measure of validity to the execution of documents which record major financial transactions and carry out a person's final wishes regarding their property.  Those powers should not be exercised carelessly, much less fraudulently.  Jones v. Owen appears to be a clear message from the Court that it will require notaries to strictly comply with their  legal duties, and that the Court will not hesitate to set aside transactions when warranted under the facts and circumstances.