Friday, November 09, 2012

What constitutes a signature?

We had a case of first impression yesterday at the registry when an attorney presented for recording a Notice of Decision from the Westford Planning Board.  The document was signed by an assistant town clerk on the date it was filed with that office and signed again by the same official with the annotation that 20 days had passed from the notice of decision but that no appeal had been filed.  So far, so good, but the signature blocks for the five members of the planning board which consisted of the board member's typed name underneath a signature line were all blank.  There were no ink-on-paper, cursive style signatures written on the lines.  The lawyer who records documents frequently and does much business with the town said that when picking up the document and noticing the absent signatures, mentioned it to the folks in the town clerks office.  The reply was that the typed names were intended to be the signatures since trying to get the traditional signatures of all five volunteer members of the planning board proved very difficult and time consuming.  Waiting for all to sign risked pushing the issuance date of the decision beyond the time mandated by law.

In theory, I have no problem with a typed name serving as a signature.  My understanding of the legal requirement for a signature is "some mark intended by the maker to constitute his or her signature."  We often receive checks from major banks with the signer's name stamped in the signature block and no one worries about that.  More than 350 years ago, Native Americans who lived along the banks of the Merrimack River executed deeds by drawing unique pictographs (stick-man like figures) for their signatures.  Today, disabled individuals routinely sign documents with an "X" in place of a traditional signature.  Using all of these as precedent, a typed name in my view can be a legally valid signature assuming the person intends that to serve as his signature.

My problem with the document was a more practical one: anybody looking at it would be more likely to draw the inference that it was incomplete, that the absence of an ink-on-paper signature was an omission rather than a non-traditional way of signing a document.  To preempt future questions from researchers viewing the document, I wanted some annotation that clearly stated that the "typed name constitutes signature."  In my presence, the lawyer doing the recording called the town planning office and received permission to make that annotation.  Once that was done, we went ahead and recorded the document.  In the future, it would be better if the person drafting such a document use the "/s/ name" format on the typed line rather than merely leave it blank along with some kind of certification signed by an administrator that the members of the board communicated their intent that their typed names constituted their signatures on the document. 

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