Call Collett: Woman left with void will, fighting for her home

Call Collett

A Lowcountry woman says she expected her will to protect her from trouble after her husband died. But problems with the will landed her in Probate Court fighting for her home.

  

Denise Palmer-Cockrum and her husband created an online will in August 2017.

“It was for me to make sure I kept my home and other properties,” Denise explained to News 2’s Rebecca Collett.

Denise’s name wasn’t on the couple’s mortgage. And since her husband was sick with diabetes and kidney failure for years, they wanted to be prepared when he passed away.

Walter died last year, and the blow of his death came in a one two punch.  While Denise was working to acquire the mortgage in her name, she learned the will they created isn’t legally binding.

Denise says the man who notarized the will instructed her to sign as a witness. The problem, according to attorney and former judge Tiffany Provence, is a witness should not also be the beneficiary.

Now the estate is tied up in Probate Court, and Denise is navigating mounds of paperwork to claim her home.

“It’s going to take more than a year,” Denise said.

She’s furious with the notary from the Trolley Road UPS store.

“Everyone who has a job doesn’t know how to do that job,” Denise said. She believes he should not have told her to sign if he didn’t know for sure.

As part of this investigation, News 2 reached out to UPS. A spokesperson wrote:

“As a franchise business, each The UPS Store, Inc. in independently owned and operated by franchise owners.  The UPS Store, Inc. as a franchisor does not provide notary training to the franchise owner or their employees.  Each franchise owner determines the training and requirements for attaining notary status based on local government laws of which they operate.”

 

Notaries Public certify the proper execution of many of the life-changing documents of private citizens — whether those diverse transactions convey real estate, grant powers of attorney, establish a prenuptial agreement, or perform the multitude of other activities that enable our civil society to function,  according to the National Notary Association.

South Carolina doesn’t require training to be a notary.  It’s simply a $25 fee and proof you’re a registered voter in South Carolina.  

“A notary is doing nothing more than verifying a signature,” Provence explained.  As a former judge and licensed attorney, she consulted with News 2 on this story.

“They are not responsible for understanding the contents of the document; giving legal advice; or being knowledgeable about all the various rules with regards to witnesses,” she explained.

Denise wishes she didn’t trust the notary.

“I showed him the will. He told me to sign.  Don’t tell me to sign if you don’t know,” Denise said.

It will cost at least $1500 for an attorney to navigate probate court for Denise.  On average, it’s $200 for an attorney to prepare, witness and notarize a will.   That’s why Provence cautions against a DIY will.

“If it’s not state specific and if it doesn’t come with an instruction sheet about what you’re supposed to do, it’s incredibly dangerous,” she told News 2.

A common misconception is that when someone dies, the spouse is entitled to assets like a home. But that’s not the case without a will, according to Provence. Other family members can fight for a portion of ownership.  

Denise hopes her story can help others be better prepared.

“I bet you somebody is going to wake up and find out they have the same issue I have right now,” she told Rebecca Collett.

After Provence learned about Denise’s case, her practice took on the case pro bono.

Though training to become a notary isn’t required, the state urges notaries to seek training.

Once commissioned as a notary public, it is the responsibility of the notary to maintain a level of training necessary to perform the duties of the position as required by law, according to Secretary of State Mark Hammond.

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