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From wills to home sales, SC lawyers are asking for emergency remote notary measures

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John A. Carlos II

Gov. Henry McMaster gives updates on the state’s preparedness for COVID-19 at the state emergency operation center on March 15, 2020.

As coronavirus fears grow, more people want to ensure someone can make health care decisions and pay the bills if they get sick.

To get that legal work done, they need a notary public to witness document signing.

And in South Carolina, those interactions must take place in person — a problem amid the international coronavirus pandemic.

"We know the world doesn't just stop," Mount Pleasant attorney Christina Wynn said. "Business transactions still continue."

A group of lawyers is asking Gov. Henry McMaster to issue an executive order allowing for remote notary work that's vital for everything from wills and trusts to power of attorney to real estate transactions.

In the last couple weeks, Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a Lancaster Democrat and an attorney, had elderly clients wanting to get their affairs in order, particularly as their age put them at higher risk of succumbing to the virus. But she did not want them leaving home to come to her office.

Then she thought about the times she’s gone to hospitals and nursing homes, which are places now with restricted visitation to prevent spread, to witness and notarize documents.

“It's super important for handling of end-of-life issues,” Norrell said.

Norrell took input from the S.C. Secretary of State's office, lawyers in different types of practices and court reporters and sent an eight-page order suggestion to the governor's office. She said she wanted some restrictions.

“Imagine if the gates just opened, so much fraud could take place,” she said.

Her proposal asked notarizing be video-recorded and a video given to the signer. It also asks attorneys to supervise the notary process.

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It also would be temporary, ending with the governor's emergency declaration. Norrell said 33 states have already altered notary requirements by executive order.

McMaster, an attorney, is considering the request and is consulting with S.C. Supreme Court, the state Bar Association and Secretary of State, his office said.

Without an electronic option, Duggan Law Firm, where Wynn works, has set up drive-thru notary services to keep clients and employees as safe as possible. The visits are less than 10 minutes and single-use pens are being provided.

"So nothing goes back in the building except the paper," she said. Clients are sent the final notarized document electronically.

Wynn said it would be better if electronic measures were taken. Signatures could be witnessed by video, documents mailed in, notarized and processed.

"Our slate of clients doesn't stop, especially in light of the current situation," Wynn said, as her firm specializes in services like estate planning, a service commonly used by the class of people most vulnerable to the virus.

Marie-Louise Ramsdale, a Mount Pleasant family law attorney, said judges have asked attorneys to continue to send affidavits and other notarized documents.

"I can't notarize because I can't meet with clients," she said. "The challenge I'm having right now is I'm sort of at a halt and so is every other family court lawyer."

At a real estate law firm near hers there's a table sitting outside the office with pens and hand sanitizer. Signing is witnessed through the window.

Ramsdale's practice handles matters like child support and custody, alimony and divorce agreements. Until a divorce is finalized, home loans can't be refinanced and retirement earnings can't be divided.

"I had an agreement that was not able to go on the record last week. Now I have concerns it may not go forward because how the (stock) market has changed," she said.

"As a client, people want certainty in financial and family matters," Ramsdale said. "This is about helping people in the midst of family crises."

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