Professor Michael L. Closen is one of the nation’s preeminent legal scholars and authorities in the field of notarization. He is Professor Emeritus at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois.
By Michael Closen
The misuse of Notary seals in conjunction with other mayhem (including violence and even murder) occur too often. Like a police officer’s badge or a soldier’s uniform, the seal is a recognized symbol of authority, and Notaries cannot allow it to be borrowed, stolen or used by anyone else under any circumstances – NO EXCEPTIONS.
Whether negligent or intentional, a Notary who allows someone else to use the seal could be liable for any monetary damages that occur as a result. The Notary also could face criminal or civil penalties for notarial misconduct.
There are two basic points to understand about Notary seals. First, the seal is a tool of a commissioned public official and is to be used only for official acts by the Notary named on it. It is not like most other kinds of inked stamps or corporate seals, which are purely private in character. Second, each seal belongs to the Notary to whom it was issued and may only be used by that Notary. Moreover, the Notary has a high duty to protect the seal from misuse by others. It’s often the case that someone else — an employer, family member or friend — pays the fees for the Notary commission and/or the seal. It doesn’t matter. The Notary is the commissioned public official — not someone who simply paid for the seal.
Far too many Notaries take the security of their seals much too lightly. I recently testified as an expert witness in a Notary malpractice trial in which the court awarded more than $150,000 to the plaintiff because of a forged notarization. The inexperienced and careless Notary had left his seal in an unlocked desk drawer in a sometimes secured supervisor’s office at his place of work. The Notary apparently mistakenly thought it would reduce his responsibility when he claimed that someone had pilfered his seal and forged the notarization in question. The Notary was wrong in both respects. He should not have kept his Notary seal in such an insecure fashion. The fact that someone else misused the seal did not make the Notary any less accountable for the forged notarization. Indeed, in this case both the Notary and his employer (who knew that the Notary left his seal unsecured in the company office) were legally liable for the plaintiff’s financial damages.
Notaries should always maintain exclusive custody and control of their seals. Notaries should either have their seals with them or keep them locked in a place only they control. As the above example shows, Notaries and their employers can be held accountable for any misuse if a seal is left unsecured and the employer encourages or acquiesces in such conduct.
Be assured, when a Notary exercises reasonable caution to secure the seal but something extraordinary occurs anyway, the law will not hold the Notary responsible. To illustrate, a seal is carefully locked away in the Notary’s home or car, and if a thief breaks in and steals the seal, the Notary should not be accountable if the seal is misused.
Even after their commissions expire, former Notaries remain responsible for their seals. An old Notary seal can be a dangerous instrument in the hands of a scoundrel, for one who is willing to forge a notarization is certainly also willing to backdate documents to a time before the Notary seal’s expiration date. Hence, Notaries must not leave their seals behind at their places of work when their commissions expire or they change employment. Nor should they give away their old seals; sell them at garage sales or in online auctions; or cavalierly discard them where someone could find and misuse them. A few states spell out how old seals must be handled. Notaries in other states should be sure to effectively destroy their seals after their commissions expire. This process should include defacing the print on the seal. Notaries should even advise their next of kin about how to properly dispose of their Notary seals in the event of their untimely deaths. Otherwise, careless family members might improperly dispose of the seal and the family members could face legal action and liability.
Notary seals are too important to be treated lightly. Always know where your seal is, and be sure it is in your exclusive custody and control, secured from someone else’s misuse. None of us want to see our names in the media due to our carelessness or neglect.