Avoiding Fraud And Coercion When Notarizing For The Elderly


Combating Fraud Against The Elderly

My first assignment as a San Diego mobile notary came from an escrow company in January 0f 2015.  The documents contained financial papers that an elderly woman and resident of an assisted living facility was supposed to sign with her adult son.  When I called the son from the parking lot of his mother’s residence, he tried to explain to me that she didn’t need to see all the documents, just the places where she was supposed to sign.  “She will just get confused!” he said, raising his voice. His mother walked outside, and he yelled for her to go back inside and wait.  At this point, it was obvious that something wasn’t right.  I took the paperwork, told the son to contact the escrow company and left.

A Common and Unfortunate Situation

Unfortunately, this situation happens more than one might think.  A professional notary is often the first line of defense against the financial exploitation of the elderly.  It is essential that notaries not only verify the identity of the individual signing, but also assess their awareness and willingness to sign the documents.  The National Notary Association, Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility, Guiding principle II, states:

“The Notary shall require the presence of each signer and oath-taker in order to carefully screen each for identity and willingness, and to observe that each appears aware of the significance of the transaction requiring a notarial act.”

Spotting The Warning Signs

Luckily for me, the incident I experienced was obvious, but for many notaries in similar situations, the signs of coercion and financial exploitation are often more subtle.  There are some things a mobile notary can look for to help prevent this type of unethical behavior. Proper training and education are essential tools in the fight against fraud and abuse.  A professional San Diego mobile notary should familiarize themselves with the most common documents used to commit these acts against the elderly.  A notary must understand the difference between the types of powers of attorney, deeds and other instruments used to convey power or property, from one person to another.  At the very least, this knowledge will allow the notary to understand the how these documents will affect those involved.  There are countless articles and blog entries by both the National Notary Association and other notaries across the country that discuss personal experiences with this issue.  Keeping current on what others are reporting is another way a notary can stay sharp at spotting fraud.

Screening The Signer: Questions

  • Who requested the notarization?  If it was someone other than the elderly signer, there could be something unethical happening.

  • Is the signer sedated or on medication?  This is common at medical facilities and nursing homes.  Be alert and ask questions.  If the signer is severely medicated, they may not be alert and aware enough to sign.

  • Does the signer appear tired, lethargic, confused or disoriented?  This could be a sign of abuse if a friend or family member purposely scheduled the signing after sedating medications were administered.

  • Does the signer give any indications that they are reluctant to sign the documents? This should be an obvious red flag and the notary should stop immediately.

  • Is a friend or family member nervous, rushed, or pressuring the signer to complete the documents?  

Managing The Signing

If a notary sees any of these signs, there are things they can do to manage the situation.  The notary should present themselves confidently and professionally, taking control of the notarization from beginning to end.  This will prevent anyone involved from feeling like they can intimidate or coerce the notary.  One way a notary can take control is by asking everyone but necessary witnesses to leave the room during the notarial process.  This will allow the notary to assess the situation without influence from others that may have an interest in the notarization being completed.  If the notary can be alone with the signer, they can take their time to explain what the document means, and assess if the signer is alert, aware of what they are signing and willing to sign the document.

The Journal Entry

Once the certificate is notarized, the notary should record any pertinent information about the signing in their journal of notarial acts.  The journal entry should always include basic information about the signing, the documents being signed and the signer.  However, the notary is free to record whatever other information they think might be relevant to the signing.  If the notarization was ordered by an adult child of an elderly signer, the notary could record this information in the journal entry in case there is ever a question about the legitimacy of the notarization and accompanying documents.


If a notary, friend or family member suspects fraud or coercion of the elderly, they should contact Adult Protective Services of San Diego County.