Notaries play an essential role in the functioning of our legal and commercial systems. The public relies upon notaries to ensure integrity in the execution and signing of business, personal, and legal documents. Properly notarized documents can help bind agreements, prevent disputes, and protect against fraud. So notaries know and understand notarial principles and exercise their duties with a certain standard of care, due diligence, good judgment, and professionalism.
So, what principles do notaries follow? And how do they notarize documents?
There are seven steps.
Step 1: Personal Appearance
A notary public will always require the signer to personally appear in his or her presence at the time of execution of the notarial act. “Personal appearance” means that the signer and notary public are in the same room close enough to be able to see each other, hear each other, and speak with each other. This means that a notary public may not:
rely on the statement of another person that the signature on the document is that of the purported signer;
rely on the notary's own familiarity with the signature; or
perform a notarial act by telephone, email, teleconference, or any other telecommunication equipment.
In fact, notarizing a document in the absence of the signer completely defeats the purpose of notarization. If the signer is not physically in the notary's presence, the notary is unable to use his or her best judgment to determine if the signer:
is competent to understand the content of the document that he or she is signing;
is signing willingly and not under duress;
is the person he or she claims to be;
is alive or exists.
Step 2: Visually Scan the Document
Although the notary is not responsible for the contents of the document, a notary will always visually scan the document presented for notarization to ensure that the document:
does not contain blank spaces or incomplete information and
contains a pre-printed notarial certificate or other instructions as to how the notary is to proceed with the notarization.
In addition, notaries who maintain notary journals will scan the document to collect and record certain information such as the document date, title, number of pages, the number of signers, and so forth.
Step 3: Verify the Identity of the Signer
A notary public will exercise a strict standard of care to verify the identity of a signer when providing notarial services. In most states, a notary public may verify a signer’s identity by any of the following three methods:
Government-issued Identification Cards
Each state has different rules about the types of identification cards that may be accepted, and you should consult your state’s authorities for a list of acceptable forms of identification. However, almost always the identification must be government-issued and contain the photograph of the holder. In most states, documents such as state driver’s licenses, state passports, and “green” cards are acceptable. Some states also have provisions that allow foreign driver’s licenses or passports to be used for notarization purposes. Most states require that the identification document be unexpired. However, you should consult with your notaries.
Almost all states allow a notary to verify the identity of a signer through the notary's own personal knowledge of that person's identity. The notary will use his or her best judgment to determine if the individual is “personally known” to him or her. Would a notary recognize this person if the notary ran into him or her on the street? Could a notary accurately describe this individual? Does a notary know his or her full name? Most importantly, would a notary be willing to testify in a court of law as to the identity of the person?
“Personally known” means that the notary has known the individual seeking the
notarization for a considerable length of time. It does not mean a casual acquaintance known to a notary by a nickname or someone recently introduced to a notary. If a neighbor says, “This is my brother Bill,” that is not sufficient for the purpose of establishing identity. If the signer is personally known to a notary, some states require that the notary indicates this fact in the notarial certificate.
Sworn Statement of a Credible Witness
On occasion, a notary may be asked to notarize a document for a client who is not personally known to the notary and who is unable to present a reliable form of identification. In such cases, notaries may rely on the testimony of an impartial person (called a “credible witness”) to identify the signer. This requires that the signer produce a friend or other person who swears in the presence of the notary that the individual is the person named in the document requiring notarization. When a notary is using this method of identification, some states require that he or she administer an oral oath to the credible witness regarding the identity of the signer, or an affidavit statement be completed and signed by the credible witness. Some states do not allow this form of identification at all.
If a notary public is not able to establish the identity of a signer by any of the above-referenced identification methods, he or she will decline to perform the notarial act.
The failure to verify the identity of a signer by satisfactory evidence may subject the notary to civil and criminal liability for malfeasance in office.
Step 4: Perform the Verbal Ceremony
When notarizing a signature on a paper document, a notary is almost always required to perform one of two notarial acts: take an acknowledgment or administer an oath to the signer.
Documents that require a signer to take an acknowledgment are usually associated with real estate conveyances, mortgages, powers of attorney, or agreements. An acknowledgment is a declaration by the signer of a document that his or her signature is genuine and that he or she has executed the document voluntarily. In this instance, the document does not have to be signed in the notary's presence.
Notarization can be completed regardless of whether the document was signed two days, two months, or two years ago, as long as the signer appears before a notary and acknowledges signing the instrument.
When taking an acknowledgment, the notary can ascertain from an ordinary conversation with the signer that the individual is alert, competent, and seems to have an understanding of the document's content. The notary may make this determination by judging whether or not the signer appears to be intoxicated, coerced into signing, or unable to understand the document.
For a notarial act to be valid, the notary will perform the verbal part of the acknowledgment notarial act by asking the signer:
“Do you acknowledge that you signed this document voluntarily and for the purposes stated therein?”
Once the person answers affirmatively, by nodding or by answering “Yes” or “I do,” the notary will complete the acknowledgment notarial certificate that is usually attached to the document or typed on a separate page. (See the certificate below.)
Source: American Association of Notaries
Documents that typically require a signer to take an oath (or affirmation) include affidavits, declarations, applications, court-related documents, and other sworn statements. In this type of notarial act, the individual must actually sign the document in the presence of a notary as an indication that the signer has assumed the obligations of the oath. However, prior to this, the notary will administer an oath by asking the signer:
“Do you solemnly swear under penalty of perjury that the statements in this document are true and correct to the best of your knowledge?”
After the signer answers affirmatively (with “Yes” or “I do”), the notary will instruct the individual to sign in the appropriate space. When administering an oath or affirmation, the notary must complete a notarial certificate called a jurat. A jurat notarial certificate differs from an acknowledgment certificate because it includes the words “sworn to (or affirmed) and subscribed before me.” (See the certificate below.)
Source: American Association of Notaries
When a notary is administering an oath, most states do not require that the affiant (i.e. the person taking the oath) raise his or her right hand or place a hand on a Bible or other religious text. However, some states do require such formalities. Some people have religious convictions against taking an oath. In such cases, the notary may instead allow the signer to make an affirmation, meaning a promise made on one’s own conscience without addressing a supreme being. Oaths and affirmations are equivalent in the eyes of the law. Making a false statement under either is a criminal offense called perjury. If the signer objects to swearing, the notary may ask:
“Do you affirm under penalty of perjury that the statements in this document are true and correct to the best of your knowledge?”
After the signer answers affirmatively (with “Yes” or “I do”), the notary will instruct the individual to sign in the appropriate space.
It is crucial that the notary public and signer are able to communicate with each other without any language barriers. If there are communication barriers, a notary will not proceed with the notarization. A notary public may not notarize a document for a signer who cannot directly acknowledge his signature or swear to the truthfulness of his statements in the notarial ceremony. In most states, a signer may not use an interpreter to communicate with the notary when the notarial act is performed. So we encourage our clients to have his or her document notarized by a notary public who speaks the same language.
Step 5: Complete the Notarial Certificate
When a notary performs a notarial act associated with a paper document, the notary will complete a notarial certificate.
Source: American Association of Notaries
A notarial certificate must include:
TYPE OF ACT
SIGNATURE AND SEAL
Step 6: Record the Notarization in a Journal
State laws differ as to exactly what information must be recorded in the notary journal. However, at the very least, the notary will record the date, type of act performed, a description of the document, the printed name of the signer, and the type of identification produced. Some states recommend that the notary request or require that the signer sign the notary's journal. This will provide confirmation that the signer was in the notary's presence and signed the journal at the time of the notarization.
Step 7: Affix Your Signature and Notary Seal
When completing the notarial certificate, the notary will sign exactly as his or her name appears on the commission, along with a stamp or seal. That's it. A notarization is successfully completed. √
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Source: Seven Steps to a Proper Notarization by the American Association of Notaries.
American Notary Service Center Inc. provides fair, fast, confidential, and professional document notarization and certification services for our clients. We also provide various assistance services to small businesses led by socially and economically disadvantaged groups. Our service helps small businesses obtain federal government contracts, gain a foothold in the market, and boost their sales. For more information, please visit our website at www.usnotarycenter.com, and contact us by calling 202-599-0777 or by email at email@example.com.