Signing Legal Documents

Whether you’re signing a mortgage or a trust, you might need an original signature.

Q: Just read your story where the writer said that his/her mother wants to put her house into a living trust. Excellent article! I’d like to add one thing that I’m sure that you know, but many people likely don’t know.

I don’t know about other states, but in Illinois, when the trustee dies and the beneficiary becomes the successor trustee, the original copy of the trust document (known as a “wet copy”) must be used in order to transfer ownership of anything in the trust. In other words, when signing legal documents, you will need an original signature, not a copy.

I’ve been through this with several relatives. Without an original signature on a legal document, or a wet copy, you’re just some person with a piece of paper. When you’ve signed a legal document with a wet copy, action happens. My father initially didn’t even want to let me know where the wet copy was! He had to admit that I had a point when I said “When you’re gone, it’s not going to do you any good. I’m the one who will need it.”

How Do You Sign Legal Documents?

A: Thanks for your letter. You make a great point. Even as society moves to accept more digital documentation, sometimes nothing replaces an originally signed legal document. In many parts of the country, probate court will require the original signed will and other legal documents to be filed.

You used the term “wet” when talking about a document. Let’s explain that a bit further. When you sign legal documents personally with a pen, that is known as a wet signature. A wet signature is different from a digital signature or even an electronic signature. While often interchangeable, there are certain situations where only an old-fashioned wet signature will do when signing legal documents.

Here’s where you no longer need a wet signature: Tax returns. You no longer have to sign your tax returns before mailing them in. You can file them electronically. The IRS and your state department of revenue will accept those electronic file as if you had signed those returns. The same is true for many legal documents. Copies of death certificates are now accepted for many use cases, although sometimes a hard copy is still required.

But there are situations where you need a wet signature. Your example is helpful because often people can’t imagine when this will come up.

We won’t go into whether you’d need a wet signature of a trust document in your state. But when it comes to a last will and testament, probate court will likely require the original signed legal document. Traditionally, probate courts wanted to see original wills and trusts to avoid having people alter documents. The safest documents were the originals with the wet signature of the decedent and those of the witnesses and notary.

When it comes to real estate documents, change is coming. Although real estate deeds and mortgages in some states may still need to be wet signature documents, many states now allow real estate documents to be electronically signed and notarized.


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