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Notary Basics: Determining a signer’s awareness

Two people looking at the document and a laptop

Updated 2-2-24. Notaries are not expected to be medical or psychiatric experts. But you should still pay attention to whether a signer appears aware and willing to conduct business requiring a notarization. In some states this critical evaluation of a person’s awareness of the transaction is a legal requirement.

Assessing a signer’s awareness generally means observing whether the signer is mentally aware enough to understand what’s going on at the time they sign documents. These are the most common situations in which a signer’s awareness may be compromised:

  • An elderly signer suffering from confusion, dementia or Alzheimer’s.
  • Heavily medicated signers, including those facing surgery or in hospice care.
  • Signers who are under the influence of alcohol or narcotics past the point of comprehension.

Notarizing for Signers With Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's is a progressive brain disease primarily affecting memory and cognitive abilities, and it's estimated to impact as many as 5.1 million Americans, according to the National Institute on Aging. In most cases, symptoms appear in people after the age of 60, with symptoms ranging from mild confusion and memory loss to severe cognitive decline.

Alzheimer's can impair a signer's ability to communicate with the Notary and understand the effect of a document being signed. Extra care should be taken if the Notary knows the signer has Alzheimer's, as the effects of the disease can vary or not be readily apparent.

Assessing awareness

If you suspect that your signer’s level of awareness may be compromised, there are simple, noninvasive steps you can take to help your consideration:

  • Introduce Yourself/Explain Your Role: Ease possible tension with a friendly introduction and brief explanation of your role as a signature witness.
  • Ask Questions: Ask open-ended questions requiring more than “yes” or “no” answers, which will help determine the signer’s coherence. Focus on non-personal topics such as weather, sports, or weekend plans.
  • Seek Clarification: If you are unsure if a signer understands your questions, you can ask them to tell you the title of the document.

What if your signer lacks awareness?

If your signer appears confused, disoriented or uncertain, you may be required to refuse the notarization — depending on your state’s laws.

California does not provide guidelines for Notaries to evaluate a signer's awareness. However, Civil Code 1189 does require signers to acknowledge to a Notary that they are the person who signed the document when an acknowledgment is performed. If the signer is unable to clearly communicate this, California Notaries should not proceed with an acknowledgment. Similarly, a California Notary should not complete a jurat if the signer is unable to respond clearly when the oath or affirmation is being administered.

Florida specifically prohibits a Notary from performing a notarization if a signer appears unable to understand the nature of the document at the time of notarization or if the Notary knows the signer has been declared mentally incapacitated by a court with appropriate jurisdiction. Massachusetts, Mississippi and New Mexico do not permit notarizing if the signer appears not to understand what is happening or is unwilling. 

In North and South Carolina, the Notary certifies that the signer appears to understand the nature and consequences of the document. Thus, if a signer appears unaware of what they are signing, Notaries in these states should refuse the notarization.

States such as Georgia, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island and West Virginia grant Notaries the authority to refuse to perform a notarization if they are not satisfied that the signer is competent or has the capacity to sign.

A Nebraska regulation urges a Notary to refuse to notarize if the Notary reasonably believes the signer does not understand the document. Texas permits Notaries to refuse a notarization if the Notary has reason to believe the signer lacks capacity to understand the document's contents or that the signer is being coerced.

As recommended in Article III-C-2 of The Notary Public Code Of Professional Responsibility, for Notaries in states without specific guidelines, the safest course is to refuse to notarize if the Notary has reasonable doubts that the signer understands the consequences of the transaction or the document requiring notarization.

After refusing a notarization

If you have any concerns about a signer’s awareness, note in your Notary journal the steps you took to determine whether to go through with the notarization.

If you do not keep a journal, you should still document this information in case you are later asked for an explanation. 

In the case of an inebriated, sick, or heavily medicated signer, you may offer to return at a later time when he or she is in a more coherent state to complete the signing.

One final word on safety

If you feel threatened by an individual at a notarization, or that refusing a notarization would place you in imminent danger, go ahead and complete it. Then report the situation immediately afterwards to your local law enforcement.

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Related Articles:

Notary FAQ: Assessing a signer's mental capacity

Additional Resources:

NNA Hotline

View All: Best Practices


Add your comment


15 Jun 2015

Thank you for this article! Perfect timing - I've been asked to be a witness and notarize a new will for an elderly woman who is going through a difficult time with her family. I do not know any members of the family (including the elderly woman). I was contacted through social media as a friend of a friend. I had planned on asking her questions before notarizing the document to determine her mental health and this has educated me as I have never notarized a will in this respect. Michigan does not require wills to be notarized but because of circumstances, I've been asked if I would be willing to notarize a new will since her husband passed away many years ago and the attorney is demanding several hundred dollars for a copy of the current will (I do not know the background on why she doesn't already have a copy). I have another question though. If there are family members present during the notarization of the new will, should I ask all family members to step outside while I question her? I don't want her to feel she is being pressured and/or intimidated. Any other suggestions?

National Notary Association

17 Jun 2015

Hi Julie. Yes, if you're concerned that family members appear to be influencing or pressuring a signer, you may ask them to step outside so you can speak to the signer privately to ensure the signer isn't being coerced.

L. A. Rust

15 Jun 2015

I notarize only business documents for my employer and personal documents for my fellow employees, so am rarely in the position of having to make decisions on a signer's competency. However, my co-workers have asked about situations where this topic comes up, as well as questions about oaths, fingerprint requirements, etc. I've gotten into the habit of saving many of your "Notary Basics" articles as PDF's to send to the people raising these questions, and they have found them to be extremely helpful and appreciate my having them available. I also keep a printed copy in my Journal to refer to should the subject come up during a notarization. Thank you for keeping us informed as to common sense and best practices, so we may continue to deliver a professional and educated service to our communities.

Deborah J Conner

26 Jun 2015

If the person is in a facility check with the staff to confirm mental status. even if she is at home ask if a physician has diagnosed any type of mental status. i always request that the family leave the room and ask the client to explain to me what she is signing, who is going to be the executor, beneficiary, why is she signing now, if her answer is because they told me to! that is not an answer. the lawyer needs to make other arrangements. if she is capable to carry on a conversation and speak clearly about the contents, relatives, all is good to go, and notarize. that just has always been my policy. but in california we only notarize wills if a lawyer requests, wills are only witnessed in california, but the same tests still apply.

Terri G.

13 Jun 2016

In addition to the mentioned scenarios, on a few occasions I have been asked to notarize powers of attorney for mentally challenged adult family members. In each case I believed the family's intentions were good, yet it was clearly evident or highly doubtful that the signer understood anything about the document. Of course the families were upset that I would not complete the notarization when they needed the power immediately and “all you have to do is just stamp it”. Although I realized they should probably pursue applying for guardianship and/or conservatorship, which would take time to obtain, I was unable to suggest that course of action. Instead, I recommended legal counsel be sought on how to proceed to get the authorization they clearly needed. It can be so frustrating when things like this are put off and not taken care of ahead of time.

Mike Lacy

17 Oct 2016

The family member just had a stroke the provider needs a power of attorney to start taking care of the family members choirs is there anything they can do to get a document notarized?

National Notary Association

19 Oct 2016

Hello Mike. That is a legal question that would need to be answered by a qualified attorney.

Jeanne Yomine

08 May 2017

My only experience with an elder woman was when she came to me with her son and his wife. The son was doing all the talking. Before I agreed to notarize "mom's" signature, I took the time to question her without letting the son answer my questions. By her tone of voice and answers to my questions it was clear that she did not need her son to speak for her and in fact asserted her opportunity to have her say. She agreed to sign and I notarized her documents.

Jeanne Yomine

12 Jun 2017

I really liked Terry G.'s comments. I will not forget how clearly requiring guardianship and/or a conservator is appropriate and this could also apply not only for potential mental concerns but for elder seniors who seem mentally challenged. I work for a law firm, so I can usually rely on our attorneys; and they sit in the room with me and their client(s). Over the years there have been exceptions outside of work as long as we agreed to meet in a public location such as a library. If I agreed to meet in someone's home, I think as a condition I would like to tape record the session as well as recording it in my book. I am never without my "notary bible" either. It is a small book published by the Association - "Sorry, NO CAN DO!"

D H Evans

12 Jun 2017

California law is inadequate in protecting the elderly or mentally challenged. I test the signer by asking if he can identify other people in the room. I ask the signer if he understands what he is signing. If I suspect the signer is incompetent I decline to do the notarization.

Robin Madison

16 Aug 2018

I have a friend whose mother had a massive stroke 11 years ago. She is unable to speak but I had a friend look up the deed to her mom's home. Seems the mother's husband did POA in 2009 but did not file it until 2015. He then had his wife's name removed from the deed and out his son's name on the deed. Now my friend gets none of her mother's home when she passes. We live in Florida. Her mother's belongings and Jewelry should go to her but we think that maybe the sons wife may have taken all the mother's possessions. My friends stepfather assured her that everything was 50/50,get obviously lied. The friend that looked up the deed said my friends mother's signature was a scribble. She never would have excluded her daughter,her only child. These 2 sneaks took advantage. I don't understand how a notary could have thought this poor woman was competent to sign anything,I honestly don't believe she knew what she was doing when they made her sign those papers.


27 May 2019


Frankie Martinez

29 May 2019

If a client is unable to sign or even mark a grant of deed because they are in severe pain, have a broken arm in a cast (their dominant hand) and are on hospice care, can their POA sign on their behalf in California?

National Notary Association

30 May 2019

Hello. Please see the following article for more information:


13 Aug 2020

If the mother n her 2 witness were under illegal drugs and the notary knew this beca yr se u was attempting to take children away n had went to her home earlier to try n convince her they would be safer with me n my husband til she got help n she was so high she could barely stand n so were her 2 friends/witness but the cousin who wanted piano sent his cousins who's a notary n got her to sign anyway.of course I can prove it except by common sense that's why children were being taken away.can I do the grandmother,the only grandparent on either side

National Notary Association

13 Aug 2020

Hello. We are sorry, but you would need to contact a qualified attorney to answer any legal questions regarding a child custody dispute.

Candice Angotti

10 May 2021

Great article, thank you. I'm interested in knowing more about the last paragraph about safety. I always have an out in mind so I can see how just going along with the signing (even though you see major red flags) is a good idea. The go to the authorities? I'm curious what, if anything the authorities are going to do. They will need both sides of the story, etc. meanwhile my signature as a notary is on this or these documents? I bet the authorities would want the documents surrendered to them, and I'm not about to do that. I'm curious if this has really happened to anyone, and what was the outcome?

Willie Lee Gale

10 May 2021

Dear Notary Asoc: My comment is how can I become a notary? please reply

National Notary Association

11 May 2021

Hello. You can find more information here:


18 Apr 2022

Oh wow I knew that we can refuse performing notary for that purpose I had a couple who were young but the husband was reluctant to signing this document the wife wanted him to sign I spoke to both of them to get some insight to this document and I still do believe he was pushed to signing and i notarized it so I hope everything turns out ok for the gentleman.

Raven I

20 Apr 2022

I have a question about one of your comments. If we feel threatened we are still supposed to go through with the signing? One Final Word On Safety If you feel threatened by an individual at a notarization, or that refusing a notarization would place you in imminent danger, go ahead and complete it. Then report the situation immediately afterwards to your local law enforcement.

National Notary Association

22 Apr 2022

Hello. If you have cause to believe refusing to complete a notarization would put you in danger, complete the notarization. Report the incident to law enforcement as soon as possible once you can get to a place of safety.

john cornelius McElhenny SR.

20 Apr 2022

I did singing and the person had a hard time seeing the documents so and had other medical issues so I did read all of the documents to him and asked if he did understand them just pointed wear to sign and yes it did take longer but he was a vet. and he needed help and his wife was worse than him so I wanted to help them.

Lois m lewis

27 Apr 2022

The information is very informative, it helps you to look at Notary in a different way. I was a notary for my job which means anything pertaining to my job we were aloud to notary. To me this will be a interesting journey to help people basic on the need.

02 Jan 2023

I have a client who needs a power of attorney for medical and financial decisions due to his autism. He is 18+ and still living at home. His parents are asking to be his power of attorney. Are there any legal or recommended steps to establish that he is aware of what he is signing and signing of his own will?

National Notary Association

10 Jan 2023

Hello. Please see this article for general information on signer awareness during a notarization: Please note that we cannot provide legal advice regarding your client's specific situation. Any legal questions about your client's status or ability to sign a document would need to be directed to a qualified attorney.

Suzanne Feinberg

10 Apr 2023

As to the last item in the article - Safety...We do not allow any of our notaries to stay in a situation that they deem is dangerous or uncomfortable. Whether the notary is male or female, if they feel it is unsafe or poses any type of physical or emotional threat, we advise them to leave and as soon as they leave, to call us so we can explain to the signer, why the notarization was not completed. A lot of times, if the notary feels unsafe, we allow them to tell the signer, that they will reschedule the signing in a public place. And we do not send our notaries out after it is dark.


14 Apr 2023

The recommendations are generally good. However, I strongly disagree with encouraging a notary to "complete a notarization" where the signer is not competent whenever the notary feels threatened. I believe the author may be trying to say that no notarization is worth someone's life. And I agree. However, the vague "sign if you feel threatened" standard is unlikely to make a bad situation good and could very easily make a bad situation worse. My suggestion (as a long-time notary with legal background is as follows: A) if you feel threatened or pressured: end the session without notarizing with a simple "I'm sorry I won't be able to help you." If not at your own location, leave immediately. If at your own location, politely tell the other parties they'll need to leave. B) If for any reason "A" above doesn't work simply say "I need to make a quick phone call", walk away if possible, but even if you can't walk away, call 9-1-1. At this point the other parties will most likely leave in haste, but if they refuse law enforcement should be able to escort them out. C) If the person demanding notarization is so aggressive that they will not let the notary leave AND are brazen enough to snatch away the notary's phone when the notary tries to call 9-1-1, you really aren't dealing with a notary situation, you are in the midst of a felony crime (assault, kidnapping and theft) and should treat it as such. To sum, "sign first and call law enforcement later" seems a bad policy. The overwhelming majority of the time, a notary who notarizes under pressure will aid a bully. Not only is the notary lying if they notarize when they feel the signer is not competent, but they are actively helping commit a fraud. If the bully pressured and intimidated by words, actions, etc. that didn't quite rise to a credible threat of death or serious harm, there is little likelihood that law enforcement would arrest. And the notary's only resource would be to then initiate legal proceedings which could drag on and on, meanwhile the false document (deed or power of attorney or whatever) can be wrecking havoc on multiple lives.

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