Legal Professionals Section
April 2014 Issue
Content is updated daily

Common Law Versus Civil Law Notaries

Most Notaries in the United States are common law ministerial officers with a strictly limited role very different from that of the attorney-like discretionary Notaries of civil law nations. But signers and the general public often misunderstand the differences — complicated by the fact that a handful of jurisdictions in the United States also commission civil law Notaries. In this article, the Legal Professionals Section compares the roles of common law and civil law Notaries.

Common Law Notaries
Most U.S. states and territories commission Notaries only of the common law variety. A common law Notary is responsible for positively identifying document signers, taking signer acknowledgments, administering oaths and affirmations and executing jurats. Common law Notaries are ministerial officers, which means they have a narrowly defined role and are prohibited from drafting legal documents for others, offering advice or assisting signers in understanding document content.

Civil Law Notaries
Civil law Notaries are found in many nations outside the United States, including most Latin American nations. A civil law Notary has training and duties similar to an attorney, and is authorized to prepare legal documents, authenticate transactions and advise participants in certain legal matters.

A handful of U.S. jurisdictions commission civil law Notaries. Notaries in the state of Louisiana and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico have the broader authority and duties of civil law Notaries because both jurisdictions use a civil law-based legal system. Alabama and Florida commission both common law and civil law Notaries, but to become a civil law Notaries in these two states, the applicant must be a qualified attorney.

Notario Publico’ Confusion And Restrictions
Having a common law commission does not authorize a Notary to prepare documents or provide legal advice or assistance with immigration matters. However, many immigrants who come from civil law nations confuse the role of U.S. common law Notaries with civil law Notaries in their home countries, and mistakenly assume U.S. Notaries can provide immigration assistance. To prevent these misunderstandings, many U.S. states strictly prohibit Notaries from advertising immigration services using the Spanish term “Notario Publico” or other foreign language approximations of the term “Notary Public.” Many states also require nonattorney Notaries to post written notices in their place of business that they may not offer legal and immigration advice to anyone. Nonattorney Notaries must always familiarize themselves with their state’s laws and strictly avoid illegal advertising or offering unauthorized services.

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