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 What Are Notaries?

A notary public is a person who is appointed by a state’s government to serve the public as a witness to the signing of important documents. This is considered to be an official deterrent to fraud, because it verifies that signatures on important documents are authentic and not forged.

The official acts of notaries in witnessing signatures and verifying the identities of signatories are called “notarizations,” or “notarial acts.” Notaries are usually appointed by a state’s secretary of state

Notarization does not prove the authenticity of a document or legalize or validate the document in any way. A notary only verifies the identities and signatures of the people who sign a document.

While notaries cannot give legal advice in the United States, in many other countries, they can give legal advice. Because of this difference in their roles in different countries, there have been cases of notaries in the U.S. practicing law with a license. This usually occurs with immigrants who want to avoid hiring a lawyer but need legal assistance for legal issues such as dealing with immigration applications. In the immigrant’s country of origin, notaries may well be authorized to give legal advice, so an immigrant may well think that they offer the same service in the U.S.

What Requires Notarization?

A wide variety of documents may require notarization. A few examples of the type of documents include the following:

  • Deeds to real property;
  • Wills: Wills require the signatures of witnesses to the signing by the testator. A notary might serve as a witness to the signing of a will;
  • Powers of Attorney;
  • Affidavits;
  • International Contracts.

It is the duty of a notary to screen the signers of important documents for their true identity, their willingness to sign without duress or intimidation, and their awareness of the contents of the document or transaction.

Some notarizations also require the notary to put the signer under oath or affirmation and declare under penalty of perjury that the information contained in a document is true and correct. An oath is a solemn pledge to a supreme being or deity to tell the truth. An affirmation is a solemn pledge on an individual’s personal honor to tell the truth. Again, the signer makes the choice of oath or affirmation.

Impartiality is the foundation of the public’s trust in a notary. They are duty-bound not to act in situations where they have a conflict of interest. The public trusts that the notary’s screening tasks have not been corrupted by self-interest.

As official representatives of the state, notaries public certifies the proper execution of many of the life-changing documents of private citizens, e.g. wills and deeds to property. Documents such as deeds convey real estate. A notarized contract might establish a prenuptial agreement, or perform the multitude of other actions that facilitate the smooth functioning of our civil society.

There are two main types of notarizations as follows:

  • Acknowledgments: Acknowledgments are executed on documents affecting property. The notary signs a statement to the effect that the person who signs a document:
    • Appeared before the notary;
    • Was positively identified by the notary, e.g by the presentation of a driver’s license, passport or other form of official identification;
    • Voluntarily and of their own free will signed the document.

While it is common practice for a client to sign the document in front of the notary at the time of the notarization, it is not actually required by law. The client may sign the document before bringing it to the notary and then declare to the notary that the signature on the document is theirs.

  • Jurats: A jurat is used in affidavits and is a certificate by the notary stating that the signer:
    • Appeared before the notary;
    • Was positively identified by the notary;
    • Signed the document in the notary’s presence;
    • Took an oath administered by the notary swearing to the truth of the contents of the document.

Administering the oath or affirmation is a critical step in performing a jurat or verification. This is because the signer is affirming that the contents of the document are true, and they may be prosecuted for perjury if the contents turn out not to be true.

In some states, notaries are qualified to certify copies. A copy certification confirms that a copy of an original document is a full, true, and accurate reproduction of the original. Documents that require copy certification may include diplomas, driver’s licenses, leases, contracts, vehicle titles, Social Security cards, and medical records.

To obtain a copy certification, the person in possession of an original document (known also as the “document custodian”) takes the original document to a notary. The notary typically makes a photocopy of the document and completes a certificate for the copy certification confirming that the photocopy is a true, accurate and complete copy of the original.

Copy certifications are considered a common notarial act in many states, but in nearly half of the states, notaries are barred from performing this type of notarization.

What Are the Requirements to Become a Notary?

There are about 4.4 million notaries in the U.S. Most of them become notaries as part of their job duties. They may work for a bank where many customers need to notarize a variety of documents or in the office of a real estate broker or attorney.

Other people are motivated to become a notary, so they can have their own mobile notary or notary signing agent business. These people are independent contractors who earn money by appearing at mortgage signings to notarize trust documents and other documents involved in mortgage transactions or at will signings.

In general, notary applicants must be 18 years old and a legal resident of the state in which they are seeking authorization. They should not have a criminal record. Some states require notary applicants to read and write English.

There is a cost to becoming a notary and it is different in different states. It may range from less than $100 in some states to several hundred in others depending on the state’s requirements. The cost of becoming a notary may include an application filing fee, the cost of any notary training, the cost of taking required exams, background screenings, required notary supplies, and the cost of a bond, if the state requires one.

In a few states, an applicant to become a notary must undergo and pass a background check to become a notary. Some states where a background check is not required may choose to perform one if the applicant states on their application that they have been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony in the past.

Notaries who choose to become notary signing agents need a separate background screening to meet industry standards.

The specific training that a notary must have and the duties they are authorized to perform differ by state. Most states require no formal training. Many require a short exam. Some states require an application signed by a state legislator, and others require witnesses who can attest to an applicant’s moral character.

The major duty of notaries in all states is to witness the signing of documents, though the method of doing so differs among states. Most states do not require a seal from notaries on documents, but because most people expect them, many notaries use them.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Notarization?

Many legal documents require notarization before they can have legal effect and many law offices have notaries on staff. If you have any questions about the authentication of a document or whether a document requires notarization, you should speak to a real estate lawyer.

Or, you may have a question about whether the signature on a document is authentic, even if it has been notarized and how that can be verified. Your attorney should be able to help you with this question.


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