Every Notary has a question or two about whether and how to notarize. Below are 20 of the most frequently asked questions, compiled from the National Notary Association's seminars, through its Notary Information Service and at the NNA's Annual Conference.
Q: What is a Notary Public?
A: A Notary Public is a public servant appointed by state government to witness the signing of important documents and administer oaths.
Q: Why are documents notarized?
A: Documents are notarized to deter fraud and to ensure they are properly executed. An impartial witness (the Notary) identifies signers to screen out impostors and to make sure they have entered into agreements knowingly and willingly.
Q: What if I smear my seal on the document?
A: If there is room, affix a second impression nearby. It is not necessary to cross out the original seal impression or write an explanation on the document; the reason for the second impression will be obvious. If there is no room for a second impression, attach a separate certificate with the same wording, signature and a clear seal impression. Line through the original notarial wording and draw a line specifically through your seal and signature. Near the old certificate wording, write "See Attached Certificate."
Q: Can I notarize for a family member?
A: Most state laws do not expressly prohibit notarizing for a relative. However, Notaries who do so in many instances will violate statutes prohibiting a direct beneficial interest. For instance, if a Notary is asked to witness her husband's signature on a loan document for the purchase of a home they will share, she will directly benefit from the transaction and should disqualify herself.
The likelihood of a direct beneficial interest is usually greater with immediate family members -- spouse, mother, father, son, daughter, sister or brother -- than with non-immediate, such as in-laws, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. The matter of interest in an inheritance is more often a consideration with lineal descendants (children, grandchildren, etc.) and ascendants (parents, grandparents, etc.) than with nonlinear relatives.
In many instances, a Notary will have no beneficial interest in notarizing for a relative and will not be prevented by law from doing so. However, to avoid later questioning of the Notary's impartiality, as well as accusations of undue influence, it is always safest for a signer to find a Notary who is not related.
Q: What is an apostille?
A: An apostille is a certificate issued by the Secretary of State or other Notary regulating agency that proves the authenticity of a Notary's signature and seal. An apostille alone is sufficient proof of authentication for notarized documents exchanged between countries which abide by the Hague Convention; otherwise a chain of authenticating certificates may be necessary.
Q: Can I send an unattached, completed acknowledgment certificate to a title company to correct an error?
A: A Notary must never give or mail a signed and sealed notarial certificate to another person and trust that person to attach it to a particular document. This would be an all but indefensible action in a civil court of law should the certificate be fraudulently or mistakenly attached to another document.
Q: How do I correct a name that has been misspelled on the document and on the notarial certificate?
A: Only the document signer has authority to make any changes on the document; likewise, only a Notary can correct the certificate. When you are correcting a notarial certificate simply line through the mistake with ink, write the correction above or beside, initial and date the correction.
Q: Can I certify a copy of a birth or death certificate?
A: A Notary should not certify a copy of a birth or death certificate. Refer the person instead to the state Bureau of Vital Statistics or county clerk's office in the county where the birth occurred. For foreign birth certificates, refer the person to the consulate of the country of origin. Depending on state law, the Notary may be allowed to certify copies of other documents that are in the possession of the constituent (i.e., a diploma).
Q: Can I certify a copy of a passport or a driver's license?
A: A Notary may certify the copy if law permits Notary-certified copies. An alternative in states not authorizing Notary-certified copies, is to perform a "copy certification by document custodian," whereby the holder of the original document certifies the copy in a written statement, and the Notary executes a jurat underneath the signed statement.
Q: Can I notarize an undated document?
A: If there is a space for a date it should be filled in with the correct date or lined through by the document signer. If the document simply doesn't have a date, it is acceptable to notarize it and record in your journal that the document has no date.
Q: Can I notarize a document in which I am named?
A: No. A Notary cannot notarize if he or she has a direct financial or beneficial interest in a transaction. Being named in a document means that the Notary has an interest and cannot act as an impartial party.
Q: Can I notarize a fax or a photocopy?
A: A photocopy or fax may be notarized, but only if it bears an original signature. That is, the copy must have been signed with pen and ink. A photocopied or faxed signature may never be notarized.
Note that some public recorders will not accept notarized signatures on photocopied or faxed sheets because they will not adequately reproduce in microfilming. Also, if the document has been faxed on glossy fax paper, a copy should be made on bond paper and that copy then signed and notarized, as wording on glossy fax paper often fades.
When carbon copies are made, the Notary will sometimes be asked to conform rather than to notarize the copies. To conform a copy, the Notary must reaffix the official seal on the copy (carbon will not readily transfer a seal impression) and write "Conformed Copy" prominently across the copy.
Q: Can I notarize a will?
A: The Notary should not proceed in notarizing a will unless clear instructions and notarial wording are provided, ideally by an attorney.
Wills are such sensitive and important documents that there are certain dangers for Notaries involved with them. Some holographic (handwritten) wills may be invalidated by notarization. And Notaries who make the mistake of helping prepare a will may be sued by would-be or dissatisfied heirs.
Often, misguided individuals will prepare their own wills and bring them to Notaries to have them "legalized." They will depend on the Notaries to know what kind of notarial act is appropriate. Of course, Notaries have no authority to offer such advice. And, whether notarized or not, these supposed "wills" may be worthless.
In many states, notarization of a will is rarely done and is unnecessary if other witnessing procedures are used. In other states, wills don't need to be notarized at all. Often, it is not the signature of the testator or testatrix (maker of the will) that must be notarized, but the signatures of witnesses on affidavits appended to the will.
Q: Can I notarize a document with blank spaces?
A: This is prohibited by law in several states. Even if not addressed in statute, a prudent Notary should skim the document for blanks and ask the document signer to fill them in. If they are intended to be left blank, then the signer can line through them or write N/A.
Q: Does a document have to be signed in my presence?
A: No and yes. In most states, documents requiring acknowledgments do not need to be signed in the Notary's presence. However, the signer must appear before the Notary at the time of notarization to acknowledge that he or she freely signed for the purposes stated in the document.
An acknowledgment certificate indicates that the signer personally appeared before the Notary, was identified by the Notary, and acknowledged to the Notary that the document was freely signed.
On the other hand, documents requiring a jurat must indeed be signed in the Notary's presence, as dictated by the typical jurat wording, "Subscribed (signed) and sworn to before me..."
In executing a jurat, a Notary guarantees that the signer: personally appeared before the Notary, was given an oath or affirmation by the Notary, and signed in the Notary's presence. In addition, even though it may not be a statutory requirement that the Notary positively identify a signer for a jurat, it is always a good idea to do so.
Q: Can I notarize for a stranger with no identification?
A: Although identification laws vary by state, in most cases when a document signer is not personally known to the Notary and is not able to present reliable identification documents, that signer can be identified on the oath or affirmation of a credible identifying witness. In most states, the word of a credible identifying witness is satisfactory evidence of identity and equivalent to personal knowledge.
A credible identifying witness, often called simply a credible witness, is like a human ID card who identifies the document signer. The credible identifying witness must personally know the document signer and must also be personally known by the Notary. This establishes a chain of personal knowledge connecting the Notary with the signer.
For example, if a stranger without satisfactory identification requests a notarization, the Notary need not turn this person away if the Notary has a friend present who personally knows the individual. The friend could serve as a credible identifying witness.
By definition, a credible identifying witness is a believable person. Credible identifying witnesses should be honest, aware and impartial to the matter at hand. This means that the credible identifying witness should neither have a financial interest in a notarized document nor be named in it.
Q: I had a call requesting a photocopy of my journal entry. Do I have to comply?
A: In general, Notary journals are considered public records. However, it is a good idea to require that particular information about any requested entry be provided before showing or copying it. In some states, for example, the requesting party may be required to submit a written request stating the month and year of the notarization, the names of the parties, and the type of document notarized. Once the request has been made, a photocopy of only the line item entry requested is given.
Q: May I complete certificate wording in blue ink or do I have to use black?
A: The Notary should use a dark colored ink such as blue or black. In rare cases, some receiving agencies may require the certificate to be filled out in a particular color; if so, the Notary may comply.
Q: Can I list two signers on one notarial certificate?
A: If two signers appear before the Notary at the same time, the names may appear on the same certificate. Because it is two separate notarizations, two entries must be made in the journal.
Q: The venue is completed with the wrong state and county. My signer says I can't change it. What do I do?
A: The document shouldn't be notarized if the Notary isn't allowed to correct the wording. The venue is part of the notarial certificate, and regardless of the type of notarization, its accuracy is the Notary's responsibility. Because the venue is supposed to indicate where the notarization was performed, if it has already been completed incorrectly, it may be corrected by lining through the error, making the correction and initialing the change.
Q: Can I limit my notarial services to customers? To people I know personally? To business associates?
A: As public officials, Notaries must serve anyone who makes a lawful or reasonable request for notarization. Some states make certain provisions to limit notarial services to transactions related to the place of employment, however these provisions do not allow the Notary to refuse services based on the status of the signer.
Q: I have been given duplicate copies of a document, each to be notarized as an original. What fees do I charge?
A: You may charge for each original signature that you notarize, even if they are on identical documents. Refer to the statutory schedule of fees for your state to determine the maximum fee per signature.