People lack the ability to sign documents for various reasons. In some cases, a person has suffered from a disability since birth and has never had the mental capacity to make decisions for himself. In other cases, an injury or medical condition could render a healthy person temporarily unable to sign. People suffering from dementia or some degenerative conditions could gradually lose the ability to comprehend and sign documents. In quite a few of these cases, especially those involving mental illness, there may be times when someone is capable of signing on one day and incapable of signing the next. But the one thing all of these various scenarios have in common is that a friend or relative should never sign anything for a person who lacks capacity unless he has authority to act on behalf of the incapacitated person.
Signing another person’s name on a document, or filling out an electronic form while claiming to be another person, can be a crime if you do it without the proper authorization. If you are confronted with a situation where you are being pressured to sign a loved one’s name for them, or if you believe that signing on your friend or relative’s behalf without her consent would be just a matter of convenience, stop and immediately call your special needs planner for advice.
There are many different ways to obtain authority to sign documents on behalf of another person. In a case where someone is physically unable to sign a document but mentally coherent (a partially paralyzed person, for example), it may be possible for the person who can’t sign to verbally instruct another person in the same room to sign the document on his behalf. Many states allow notary publics to fulfill this duty. Another common way to delegate signature authority is through the use of a durable power of attorney. But durable powers of attorney are not perfect. The Social Security Administration does not usually honor them, and instead requires a signatory to meet a separate set of criteria before signing. Durable powers of attorney also have to be executed by a person who is competent to sign, so they cannot be used by a person who has never had the mental capacity to sign documents.
In cases where a durable power of attorney is not available or not accepted, an interested family member or friend may have to petition a court for guardianship or conservatorship of an incapacitated person before being able to sign on her behalf. Guardianship often involves a lengthy court process and can cost a lot of money, but it usually provides a great deal of flexibility to sign most documents and it gives the person with the disability additional protection.
Signing on someone else’s behalf without his permission is one option that should almost never be utilized, even if it seems convenient or appropriate. However, in some rare cases (like an application for Social Security disability benefits), a person may be able to sign on behalf of another without prior authorization. These situations are rare, and you should never sign anything for someone else without speaking with your special needs planner first.