Notary Bulletin

Disregarding Best Practices Increases Your Legal Risks

Notaries are duty bound to protect the public by handling each notarization with a standard of care that often goes beyond state requirements. A faulty notarization is dangerous to the public and, increasingly, Notaries are finding that even one improperly handled notarization  no matter how innocent it may seem  can land you on the wrong side of a lawsuit, or even lead to criminal charges.

Sometimes, trouble comes from ignoring the law and basic notarial principles altogether. A Massachusetts Notary learned that lesson the hard way after being accused of performing official acts without requiring the signer to be present. Her case demonstrates the importance of following a higher notarial standard of care  and highlights that ignorance of the signers criminal intent does not relieve a Notary of responsibility or liability.

Notary Judith Piette allegedly made the mistake of performing notarizations on power of attorney documents even though the signers werent there. Now she is accused of unwittingly helping group of criminals steal homes away from their rightful owners. She has been charged with four misdemeanor counts of executing false written reports by a public officer. If convicted on all four counts, she faces a maximum sentence of four years in prison and $4,000 in fines.

The Attorney Generals office said there is no evidence Piette knew the documents were fraudulent. But the homeowners were completely unaware of the false powers of attorney. The victims homes were sold without their knowledge, and the false notarized powers of attorney were then used to cash checks from the illicit sales made out in the homeowners names.

Had Piette simply refused to notarize unless the signers personally appeared before her  a basic notarial best practice required by the state  she could have easily avoided the legal trouble shes in today.

There is no basic rule whose violation is more likely to get Notaries in big trouble than the rule that a document signer must always appear in person before the Notary at the time of notarization, said NNA Vice President of Notary Affairs Charles N. Faerber. This is clearly stated in the Governors Executive Order , which has the force of law in guiding Massachusetts Notaries. The Notary in this case should have known better.

Guiding Principle III of The Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility speaks to the importance of personal appearance in the notarization process. And personal appearance is arguably the most violated essential best practice, putting countless transactions at serious risk.

In Colorado, for example, the states focus has been on educating Notaries to help them protect the public and avoid costly mistakes  and for good reason. In 2008, 33 percent of reported violations of the states Notary Public Act involved Notaries who failed to require personal appearance of the signer. That number shot up to 44 percent in 2009. And thats not counting the complaints about disqualifying interest, unauthorized practice of law and other violations.

As the landmark Vancura v. Katris case illustrated, proper training and education are key in ensuring that Notaries fulfill their duties and avoid liability for themselves and their employers. Proper training and education can easily help Notaries avoid these legal pitfalls.

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Quiz: The Many Types Of Notarial Acts

Notaries perform many different duties for the public — and it’s easy to lose track of the different acts and what states they’re authorized in. Test your familiarity with common — and uncommon — notarial acts.

(A link to the correct answers is provided at the end of the quiz.)

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