Ohio Appellate Court: Deed Invalid When Decedent Did Not Authorize Another To Sign

In Byars v. Byars, a November 5, 2021 opinion from the Ohio Second Appellate District, the Court reversed the judgment of the probate court finding a deed valid because there was no evidence that the decedent authorized another person to sign the deed.

The Facts of Byars v. Byars

Margaret Byars died intestate in May 2018, survived by her five children:  Reginald, Keith, Tracie, Russel, and Tanya.  After Margaret died, Keith revealed to his siblings that their mother had executed a quitclaim deed the previous year giving him her Dayton home. Reginald, individually and as the administrator for Margaret’s Ohio estate, filed a complaint for a declaratory judgment that Keith did not own Margaret’s home because the deed was invalid and void.

At a hearing on Reginald’s claims, the siblings and the notary to the deed testified.

The notary, who was also a long time friend of the decedent, testified that shortly after decedent entered a nursing home, the notary met with decedent and Keith to notarize the deed.  The notary testified that she noticed that, other than the notary acknowledgment, the deed had already been fully completed, including Margaret’s signature. The notary testified that Margaret did not appear to be weak and did not act in any manner that suggested that the home’s transfer was not what she intended or that she was forced or tricked into the transfer decision.

Keith testified that Margaret gave him the house as a gift.  Keith said that he could not recall who was present when Johnson notarized the deed and that he did not see his mother sign it either.  The trial court found Keith’s testimony unreliable overall, saying in its written decision that “he was less than forthcoming and informative in answering even the simplest of questions.”

The siblings generally testified about the close relationship they had with their mother and that she wanted them to share her assets equally.

The trial court entered its judgment declaring that Keith was the lawful owner of the house, based on the court’s conclusion that the deed was valid and effective. The court found that Margaret had not herself physically signed the deed but that another had affixed Margaret’s signature to it. Finding no evidence of fraud or forgery, the court relied on the notary’s testimony that Margaret appeared competent and seemed to understand that the deed acted to transfer the home to Keith.

Does an Ohio Deed Have To Be Signed To Be Valid?

By Ohio statute, a deed that is lawfully executed must be “signed by the grantor.” R.C. 5301.01(A). A deed that is signed—and acknowledged and recorded—raises a rebuttable presumption that the deed is “valid, enforceable, and effective,” as well as a rebuttable presumption that the deed conveys the described property. R.C. 5301.07(B)(1).

Here, the trial court found that Margaret did not sign the deed.  Instead, Margaret’s “signature” looks very much like the handwriting elsewhere in the deed—that of the person who prepared it.

Can Another Person Sign the Deed For the Grantor Under Ohio Law?

Yes, under Ohio law the grantor need not actually sign a deed. The Ohio appellate court quoted from Smaltz v. Meyer, 3d Dist. Hancock No. 5-89-18, 1991 WL 3588 (Jan. 18, 1991), where the grantor’s signature had been affixed by someone other than the grantor. Testimony at trial showed that the grantor had explicitly told the other person to sign the deed for him. The appellate court found no problem with this, quoting the discussion of the issue in Ohio Jurisprudence:

 “[T]he signature of the grantor, though essential to a valid deed, need not be in the grantor’s own handwriting. He may execute the deed either by his own unaided strength, or with the assistance of another person in steadying his hand and tracing lines for him, or simply by verbally authorizing another to make the whole signature for him, provided it is done in his presence, and his adoption of a signature by affixing his mark thereto, the deed being in other respects regular, is as effective to transfer the estate as if his name had been written thereon in full by himself.”

Ohio Jurisprudence has since revised its discussion of this issue. Now it says:

“[T]he signature of the grantor, though essential to a valid deed, need not be in the grantor’s own handwriting. A grantor may execute the deed either on its own, or with the assistance of another person, so long as there is evidence that the grantor comprehended and desired the execution of the deed.” 35 Ohio Jurisprudence 3d, Deeds, Section 18 (August 2021).

The Grantor Must Understand the Deed, Want Its Execution, and Authorize Another To Sign

The Ohio appellate court concluded that the statutory signature requirement for a valid deed may be satisfied by another affixing a grantor’s signature on a deed so long as the evidence shows that the grantor comprehended the deed, wanted its execution, and authorized the other to sign it. The Ohio appellate court held that Margaret comprehended and understood the deed:

The testimony of Sophia Johnson, the notary, reveals that Margaret comprehended the deed and perhaps even wanted its execution. Johnson testified that Margaret did not appear to be weak and did not act in any manner to suggest that her actions were the product of force or deceit. Johnson also testified that she believed that Margaret understood the deed’s nature and consequences.

However, there was no testimony that Margaret authorized another person to sign the Ohio deed, which meant the deed was not valid, which was grounds for reversal:

But Johnson’s testimony did not establish that Margaret authorized Dowell or anyone else to sign the deed for her. Indeed, the evidence did not definitively establish who affixed Margaret’s signature to the deed. Dowell did not testify, and Johnson did not seem to know who had prepared the deed. Johnson testified only that, other than the notary acknowledgment, the deed form had already been completed when she arrived.  Because the evidence did not establish that Margaret authorized someone else to sign the deed for her, the statutory signature requirement was not satisfied, which meant that none of the presumptions of validity under R.C. 5301.07(B) arose. Based on the evidence presented, it can only be concluded that the deed was not legally executed and was ineffective to convey Margaret’s house.

Because there was no evidence that Margaret authorized another to sign,  the Ohio deed here was invalid, unenforceable and ineffective.  The Ohio appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment declaring that Keith was the lawful owner of Margaret’s house.

 

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