What is a valid Signature in Tennessee?
The act of signing a document has great significance. The common (and mostly accurate) understanding is that by writing one's name on it, one agrees to become legally bound by the terms therein. But does a signature require a name in Tennessee? What about electronic signatures?
The short answer to the first question is almost certainly "no." Tennessee statutory law is clear that signatures can be comprised of a variety of writings or marks. Tennessee Code, Title 1, which provides definitions that should be used in interpreting Tennessee statutes, defines that a signature "includes a mark, the name being written near the mark and witnessed, or any other symbol or methodology executed or adopted by a party with intention to authenticate a writing or record, regardless of being witnessed." (TCA 1-3-105, emphasis added)
Tennessee Code, Title 47, which governs commercial transactions, is even more clear with regard to electronic signatures. Chapter 3 of that title provides that "[a] signature may be made (i) manually or by means of a device or machine, and (ii) by the use of any name, including a trade or assumed name, or by a word, mark, or symbol executed or adopted by a person with present intention to authenticate a writing." (TCA 47-3-401) Chapter 10 addresses electronic signatures in commercial transactions specifically, defining an electronic signature as "an electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to or logically associated with a record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record." (TCA 47-10-102)
Finally, Tennessee Code, Title 16 provides that Tennessee courts can likewise accept certain electronically-signed documents: "Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, courts in this state may implement procedures for the use of electronic signatures in the signing of pleadings, court orders, judgment orders, affidavits of complaint, arrest warrants, a mittimus or other court documents. An electronic signature may be used to sign a document and shall have the same force and effect as a written signature." (TCA 16-1-115)
But what does this mean for an estate plan? Can a potential testator sign their name with a mark, or even a computer? The Tennessee Court of Appeals has answered that question in the affirmative. In Taylor v. Holt, 134 S.W.3d 830 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003), the court held that a computer generated signature mark that otherwise followed all the formalities required of a Tennessee will was a valid signature under TCA 1-3-105.
Looking at the court's reasoning, it is clear that two things are very important for ensuring that a signature mark is valid: 1. That the signer intended to sign the document, and for the mark to function as their signature; and 2. that the other formalities, such as having attesting witnesses, are followed. Factor 2 feeds into factor 1, as witnesses can prove to the court that the signer intended to sign the will, and that the mark was intended to be a signature.
As always, this is just our best summation of current Tennessee statutory and case law, and not a categorical statement. There are many reasons a court can find an individual signature to be invalid, but at least in Tennessee, those reasons do not likely include the simple fact that it is not a "wet" ink signature or even a name. If you have questions about signatures, will formalities, or any aspect of estate planning, please consult a reputable Tennessee estate planning attorney.
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