Monday begins my annual tradition of absentmindedly writing “2017” instead of “2018” on documents that I date over the next few months.
Often, unintentional errors (such as dates) are made in documents, including documents that have a great deal of legal significance. Fortunately, the law provides some methods to ignore or correct some unintentional errors in some documents, depending upon the character of the error and the nature of the document.
Generally, errors in documents are characterized into two categories: substantive and non-substantive.
Non-substantive errors are ones that make a document inaccurate or incorrect but which, if corrected, would not change what the document does. In contrast, substantive errors literally alter what the document does.
For documents that are recorded at the courthouse, the difference between substantive errors and non-substantive errors determines how the error may be corrected.
For example, let’s presume that Michael Jones is selling his house to Mary Smith. When Mr. Jones purchased his house many years ago, the deed to Mr. Jones stated that the property was being conveyed to “Michael T. Jones.” However, when Mr. Jones sold his house to Ms. Smith, Mr. Jones’s name was typed on the deed as “Michael Jones,” with no middle initial.
The omission of Mr. Jones’s middle initial could someday create a title issue for Ms. Smith, but it is generally considered a non-substantive error. If Ms. Smith confirms that Michael T. Jones is literally the same person as the Michael Jones who signed the deed, the law allows Ms. Smith to write a “T” in the proper spot on the deed and simply re-record that deed.
In contrast, the deed from Michael Jones to Mary Smith may have a mistake in the property description, which is considered a substantive error. If the deed stated that the property was “Apartment 1” when, in fact, the property was “Apartment 11,” that mistake would change what property the deed transferred. Correcting a substantive error like the apartment number usually requires that an entirely new document be signed and recorded.
For other types of documents in certain situations, even big errors are considered non-substantive. For instance, I may get a receipt when I purchase a refrigerator. That receipt might identify my refrigerator as being an 18-cubic foot refrigerator when, in fact, my actual refrigerator is only 15 cubic feet in size. I may someday want to prove how much I paid for that item (to deduct it from my taxable income, for example). The significance of the refrigerator size, even though it is a substantive, material error, may not make any difference when I am using the receipt for something other than proving the refrigerator’s exact size.
Notably, some documents, such as wills, are almost never able to be corrected after the signer dies.
When it comes to documentation, accuracy is almost always worth targeting. However, the nature of an error as well as the character of the document within which the error appears can define if and how that error may be corrected.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.