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.

Arkansas Court Of Appeals Affirms Agreement To Split Joint Accounts Despite Beneficiary Designations

 There is often confusion regarding what property falls within an estate, or trust, and what property falls outside of either.  For example, commonly bank accounts, IRA’s, etc., are titled in such a way that upon one person’s death, the remaining monies are left to the other person or person(s) identified on the account paperwork such that this property passes outside the estate or trust.  It can often be a difficult task to demonstrate that this money should be divided in a different manner.

 However, the Arkansas Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s ruling that this was what was supposed to occur, in the case of Richardson v. Brown, 2012 Ark. App. 535 (September 26, 2012) stemming from Faulkner County Circuit Court.  This was actually a case that I handled on behalf of a client, and the Judge ruled in his favor.  The ruling was left wholly intact by the appellate court.

Without going into too much detail, the parties' mother passed away leaving three children as her heirs.  Certain property passed to the children pursuant to a will, but the mother had other property (a car, bank accounts, IRA, etc.) that were titled in various ways as between her and her individual children.  Our client argued that despite the titling on the various property, the three children had in fact an oral agreement, as demonstrated by the later actions and conduct of the children, to split all of the properties evenly.  He had received the “short end of the stick” and, basically, believed that his sisters had intentionally deprived him of his equal one-third share.

 In a hard fought battle, our client ultimately prevailed at trial and proved that, notwithstanding the titling on the various properties, there was an express agreement among the siblings to equally divide the various accounts.  The trial court imposed a judgment and a substantial attorneys’ fee award, both of which were affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

 In doing so, among other things the Court ruled that ordinarily ownership of a joint bank account with a right of survivorship is conclusive proof of the parties’ intent for the property to pass to the survivor.  However, this general rule does not prevent the survivor from making a different disposition by agreement, and in this case the trial court determined that such an agreement had in fact been made among the siblings.  This is a difficult argument to make, because courts presume that the titling on an account is strong evidence of how that property is to be distributed.  But, if the facts and evidence warrant it, this case demonstrates that a court will sometimes hold that an agreement to divide the property otherwise will prevail over the titling of an account.

 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.

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. 

Court Rules Testator Was Not Under Insane Delusions When He Revoked His Will

It has been estimated that well over 1/2 of all Americans do not have a will.  I personally know many attorneys that do not even have a will, even though virtually every Arkansas lawyer passed a bar examination covering wills and trusts and more than likely also took a decedents' estates class in law school.  Whether because of not wanting to confront the inevitable (death), procrastination, or other factors, drafting a will is simply not high on the list of priorities for a large percentage of people. 

A primary reason why people do have a will, however, is to have direction and control as to whom their property will be distributed after their death.  Dying without a will is called dying "intestate," and the intestacy laws of the State of Arkansas set forth a rather strict statutory scheme detailing how a person's property will be divied up (to children, descendants of children, surviving spouse, parents of the decedent, etc.).  If a person does have a will, but then validly revokes it without ever executing a new one, then that person will "die intestate" as well.

That is what happened in the recent appeal of Heirs of F.D. Goza, Jr., et al. v. Estate of William E. Potts, Deceased, CA 09-235 (February 17, 2010).  Specifically, this was a probate case in which the former in-laws of the decedent, Mr. Potts, were attempting to take their shares as beneficiaries of a 1989 will which, the estate asserted, was revoked sometime between 2002 and Mr. Potts' 2006 death.  The appellants, relatives of Mr. Potts' deceased wife, Ms. Goza, argued that Mr. Potts lacked testamentary capacity and was under insane delusions when he revoked his will.  The trial court disagreed, ruled that Mr. Potts died intestate (meaning that Mr. Potts' property amounting to several hundred thousand dollars went to persons other than the appellants), and the Arkansas Court of Appeals affirmed. 

The facts and circumstances surrounding Mr. Potts' revocation were interesting to say the least, and involved Mr. Potts marking "void" over each paragraph, writing "bastard" and "get nothing" on the will, applying Liquid Paper over the names of the beneficiaries, and later shredding the document in front of witnesses.  There were tales of alleged affairs and "wife stealing," temper tantrums, and other curious claims, but in the end the Court held that "the evidence clearly showed that Bill was an irascible, angry, suspicious, controlling, profane, and difficult man for most of his adult life; however, we cannot say that the trial court erred in refusing to find that he labored under insane delusions."   

The lesson learned from this case is that not only must a testator have the capacity to execute a will (the ability to understand the effects if executed), the testator much also have the same capacity to later revoke that will after it has been executed.  As the Court held, "complete sanity in a medical sense is not essential to testamentary capacity, provided power to think rationally exists."  Given the steep standard for proving lack of capacity by a testator, contesting a will (or, in this case, a will revocation) can be a difficult task in the absence of very persuasive evidence.    

Court Rules Handwritten Note Found By Deceased's Mother Did Not Result In Change Of IRA Beneficiary

As previously discussed on this Blog, a common fact scenario in estate, trust and probate lawsuits involves an eleventh-hour change in a dying person's final wishes regarding their property.  Quite often the last-minute decision appears legitimate, although occasionally there is an aura of suspicious facts and circumstances surrounding the event which arises to the level of an "inheritance theft."  Frequently the change in question is expressed in the form of a handwritten note, and courts are commonly called upon to rule whether or not such "wishes" will actually be  enforced.

On January 27, 2010, the Arkansas Court of Appeals addressed a somewhat similar situation in the case of Nunneman v. Estate of Donald T. Grubbs, et al, Case No. 2010 Ark.App. 75.  Specifically, Mr. Grubbs had named Ms. Nunnenman as beneficiary of his IRA, and a few days before his death evidently called a lawyer to his hospital bed and executed a will, leaving all of his property to his mother, Ms. Grubbs.  She then asked the Court to freeze certain IRA monies contending that she had discovered a 2005 note in Mr. Grubbs' bible which stated:  "My Will.  I Donnie Grubbs want all of my estate All IRA and any SBC Telco and all other assets and worldly goods to go to my Mother Shervena Grubbs.  Being of sound mind.  Donnie Grubbs."  Ms. Grubbs alleged that she had found the note in the presence of a coworker, but that witness claimed that she had not known of the note's existence before the trial. 

After considering the evidence, the trial court ruled that the handwritten note should have the effect of changing the IRA beneficiary.  Ms. Nunnenman appealed and the Arkansas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, ruling that it was clear error to find an effective change of the IRA beneficiary.  Specifically, the Court pointed to the conflicts in the testimony regarding the discovery of the note and also focused upon the fact that the very person who discovered the note was the same person who would end up benefitting from its discovery.  The Court also opined that it was significant that while Mr. Grubbs had undertaken steps to call a lawyer to come to his bedside, he had not taken similar measures to change his IRA beneficiary. 

In sum, this case is a good example of the heavy burden that a party has when attempting to prove a change in property disposition by means of a handwritten document.  As a general matter the Court will need to be presented with a strong showing of evidence before favorably considering such a request. 

UPDATED: Dispute Erupts Over Wealth Of Deceased Billionaire Shopping Mall Developer

Pretty much anyone who has lived in Central Arkansas over the last few decades has been aware of if not actually visited University Mall in Little Rock's midtown area.  While it used to be the hot spot for shopping many moons ago, in more recent years it became better known for its empty stores and the litigation that resulted from disputes over the mall's management.  The mall closed in 2007, demolition began in 2008, and a brand new mixed-use development appears imminent for the property in the next year or two.  

Anyone familiar with University Mall is also undoubtedly aware of its close proximity to Park Plaza Mall.  Ever since moving to Arkansas back in 1992, I never understood why University was built almost literally next door to Park Plaza (built a few years earlier in 1959), yet another enclosed shopping mall.  But I guess that's why I'm a mere lawyer and the folks who make the big bucks are mall magnates like Melvin Simon

Specifically, University Mall was developed by Melvin Simon & Associates, an Indianapolis-based real estate development and management company which later became known as Simon Property Group.  I mention this because Simon Property Group is evidently the largest public U.S. real estate company, and shopping mall development made the company's namesake---Mr. Simon---a very wealthy man.  He and his brother, who also co-founded the company, eventually purchased the Indiana Pacers franchise of the National Basketball Association. 

According to a recent post on the Florida Probate & Trust Litigation Blog,  the Wall Street Journal writes that a wealth war has begun over the terms of Mr. Simon's will.  Apparently, Mr. Simon's wife was only supposed to receive approximately one-third of his fortune and, after some changes were evidently made to his will a few months before his death, she now stands to receive about one-half.  Considering that his wealth has been estimated at $1-2 billion depending upon the fluctuating stock price of his company, even minor changes in his will could amount to a major redistribution of wealth.  Notably, the changes cut out Mr. Simon's three children from his first marriage.  

At least one of those children is now suing Mrs. Simon, their stepmother, contending that she unduly influenced Mr. Simon and persuaded him to change his will to reduce the children's inheritances.  The lawsuit also alleges that Mr. Simon had dementia and needed assistance signing the document, to which Mrs. Simon has now apparently responded that while he did in fact have Parkinson's Disease and needed help with his signature, he voluntarily signed a new will and trust of his own free will.  This will be a wealth war worth watching in the next few months. 

Seemingly sudden changes to wills and trusts shortly before someone dies are one of the most common disputes arising in estate, trust and probate litigation.  As the Baby Boomer generation begins to retire and ultimately pass away, there will no doubt be millions more similar disputes in the decades to come. 

UPDATE:  The following link contains the latest update (as of 2/11/10) from the Wall Street Journal.

Removal Of An Executor (Personal Representative) From An Estate Under Arkansas Law

As previously discussed on this Blog, an executor, also known as a personal representative, is a person who is charged with the responsibility of administering an estate after another person has passed away.  They will typically do things like collect and inventory the deceased's assets, manage the property, pay the debts, and distribute property according to any will or the intestacy laws (setting forth distribution priorities for those dying without a will).

However, conflicts will sometimes arise between the executor of the estate and the beneficiaries of that estate, the latter of whom are generally supposed to receive bequests or property from the estate.  Perhaps the executor is alleged to be operating under a conflict of interest, is improperly personally benefitting from the property of the estate, or is simply not carrying out their duties.  In Arkansas, there is a specific statute that governs these conflicts and sets forth the grounds for when an executor can be removed from his or her office.  For anyone who currently is or ever anticipates administering an estate in Arkansas, or who is or ever will be the beneficiary of an estate,  it is worth getting familiar with the removal statute.

Specifically, under the Arkansas Probate Code of 1949, Ark. Code Ann. § 28-1-101 et seq., the Court appoints and issues letters testamentary to a personal representative to manage and preserve the property and rights of the decedent until distribution according to the testamentary document or appropriate intestate statute. Ark. Code Ann. § 28-48-102. It is well-established that "[t]he personal representative occupies a fiduciary position toward the heirs, and it is his duty to act toward them, as the beneficiaries of the trust administered by him, with the utmost good faith." Price v. Price, 253 Ark. 1124, 1137, 491 S.W2d 793, 801 (1973). The personal representative generally continues in that office unless removed due to one or more of the grounds set forth in Ark. Code Ann. § 28-48-105.

Ark. Code Ann. §28-48-105(a) (emphasis added) provides that:

(a)(1) When the personal representative becomes mentally incompetent, disqualified, unsuitable, or incapable of discharging his or her trust, has mismanaged the estate, has failed to perform any duty imposed by law or by any lawful order of the court, or has ceased to be a resident of the state without filing the authorization of an agent to accept service as provided in § 28-48-101(b)(6), then the court may remove him or her.

(2) The court on its own motion may, or on the petition of an interested person shall, order the personal representative to appear and show cause why he or she should not be removed.

With this in mind, Ark. Code Ann. §28-48-107(a) (emphasis added) provides that "[w]hen a personal representative dies, is removed by the court, or resigns and the resignation is accepted by the court, the court may, and, if he or she was the sole or last surviving personal representative and the administration is not completed, the court shall, appoint another personal representative in his place upon the motion or petition of an interested person."

Separate and distinct from the statutory grounds for removal of a personal representative, multiple Arkansas cases also shed light on this issue. For example, in Robinson v. Winston, 64 Ark.App. 170, 175-76, 984 S.W.2d 38, 40-41 (1998), the evidence was deemed sufficient to warrant removal of the personal representative due to her attitude toward a person interested in the estate that created a reasonable doubt as to whether she would act honorably, fairly, and dispassionately in her trust, and because the tension and her continuance in the office would likely render administration of the estate difficult, inefficient, or unduly protracted. See also Matter of Guardianship of Vesa, 319 Ark. 574, 579-82, 892 S.W2d 491, 494-95 (1995) ("unsuitability" of ward’s sibling to serve as guardian of the estate, justifying removal on probate court’s own motion and appointment of neutral successor, was established by evidence of family friction among ward’s siblings which adversely affected administration of estate).

Likewise, in Guess v. Going, 62 Ark. App. 19, 23-25, 966 S.W2d 930, 932-33 (1998), testimony of the personal representative that "mother’s love" precluded her from challenging a land sale agreement that was extremely favorable to her daughter, even though the terms of the agreement made it unlikely that the heirs of the estate could ever benefit from what would have been the estate’s largest asset, established a conflict of interest making the executrix unsuitable and warranting her removal. See also Price v. Price, 258 Ark. 363, 378, 527 S.W.2d 322, 332-33 (1975) (wherein a personal representative who had persistently acted in furtherance of her own interests in a manner to deprive her step-children of any benefits from their rights of the father’s property, and who had been recalcitrant about compliance with her fiduciary responsibilities and directions of the court, was deemed unsuitable for discharge of the trust involved in acting as personal representative of the estate such that removal was appropriate).

In sum, those administering estates in the State of Arkansas must take their duties seriously so as to avoid placing themselves in a situation in which their actions and inactions could be questioned.  Similarly, beneficiaries of an estate should be vigilant in monitoring the conduct of the executor to ensure that they are properly doing their job.  In the appropriate case, Arkansas courts have not hesitated to remove executors where the facts and circumstances warrant it.

Videotaping As Possible Way To Preclude Estate, Trust & Probate Litigation

You may remember a movie from 15 or so years ago called "My Life," starring Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman, in which a terminally ill man films a video for his unborn child to watch after the man passes away after a fight with cancer.  The father essentially wanted the child to know who the father was and what the father had learned in his own life, since he would not be around when the child was growing up. 

While the movie was not focused upon an estate or trust battle, I was still reminded of "My Life" yesterday when reading the December 7, 2009 post on the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog, which had an interesting link to a December 3, 2009 Wall Street Journal article written by Kristen McNamara and entitled "Lights, Camera . . . Last Words."  The article discussed videos as a way of allowing the dying to say a few last words and also possibly prevent legal disputes regarding property division after death.  Here is an excerpt from the Blog and the article itself:

"Some individuals have found a way to breathe life into dry estate-planning documents: They're supplementing them with personal messages via video.

With guidance—and caveats—from attorneys and financial advisers, some elderly and terminally ill individuals, and even some young parents, are picking up video cameras or hiring professional videographers to share their life stories, express hopes for younger generations and explain why they're leaving certain assets to certain family members. * * *

[E]xperts say that while videos can head off disputes, if not carefully executed, they also can backfire. * * *

A video may make sense if you are concerned that an heir will claim you weren't competent when you signed estate-planning documents or were pressured to distribute your assets a certain way, estate-planning attorneys say. Videos in which lucid individuals review their wills with their attorneys and answer questions that demonstrate their understanding of the documents and confirm they weren't coerced into any decisions can be useful in rebuffing challenges, they say. Such videos are typically filmed during a will-signing in an attorney's office and are kept by the attorney, along with the estate-planning documents. * * *

Attorneys generally caution against homemade videos, saying they are more likely to cause problems than those produced in consultation with an attorney. A video filmed by a beneficiary, for example, could give rise to conflict-of-interest questions. And, whether filmed professionally or not, a video in which a person looks ill or uneasy could raise questions about his or her cognitive abilities."

My personal view on this is that---overall---technology is a good thing and if it can be used to help rather than hinder in the course of estate planning, then it should be considered as part of the process.  After all, there is little doubt in the criminal context that many a disputed traffic stop, questioned search and seizure, and controversial police station interrogation could be averted if such proceedings were videotaped to ward off the "he said, she said" nature of these events.  Likewise, it seems that if an individual had a video camera and (vis-a-vis an objective, detached cameraman) proceeded to film a will or trust signing ceremony, held up each page of the document to the camera, interviewed or showed the witnesses and other participants, videotaped the actual signatures and notarizations, and otherwise allowed the individual to talk at length during the proceeding, that this could conceivably preclude many a disputed proceeding involving fraud, undue influence, and the like. 

Michael Jackson's Father Making Push For Allowance And Say-So In Deceased Son's Estate

At my house we just started giving allowances to our kids so long as they do certain chores around the house, and hopefully the experiment will teach them a number of lessons including personal responsibility, teamwork, the value of hard work, budgeting, saving, etc.  Each of our children will receive one dollar (per year of their age) per week, i.e., our 7 year old will receive $7 per week so long as he does his chores every day (and is docked a buck if he doesn't get them done).  I am hopeful that this will work, but the jury is still out as they have not yet caught on, for example, to the requisite bedmaking every morning.

That allowance, of course, is a mere pittance to the allowance that Michael Jackson's father is claiming from his son's estate.  I wrote about Michael's death a few weeks ago, and sure enough it appears that there are some post-funeral disputes with respect to who will benefit from the assets in his estate.  Specifically, an article today reveals that the gloved one's controversial father, Joe Jackson, recently filed a 60-page motion seeking a $15,000 monthly allowance to help cover his expenses.  Apparently Mr. Jackson's only income other than his son's assistance has been a $1,700 monthly Social Security check.  His alleged monthly expenses evidently include $1,200 for rent for his Las Vegas home (his wife of 50 years lives north of Los Angeles), $2,500 for eating out, $1,000 for entertainment, gifts and vacations; $2,000 for air travel; and $3,000 on hotels.  That actually does not sound too unreasonable considering Vegas prices, separate and distinct from the issue of whether Mr. Jackson should receive a dime to begin with . . .  

Anyway, a judge has ruled that Mr. Jackson can pursue his motion to receive a family allowance from the estate because he claimed his son had long been supporting him, but simultaneously ruled that he will not inherit any of his famous son's assets because he was not named in the will.  Mr. Jackson was deemed not to have standing to pursue his litigation, and therefore also will not be able to challenge the appointment of the executors chosen by the singer to handle the administration of his estate.  There is some indication from the article that an appeal may be forthcoming, but given the well-publicized strained relationship that Michael and Joe Jackson have had in the past it seems unlikely that an appellate court would overrule the trial judge's factual findings as to Michael's intent in drafting his will.

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.