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Notary Tip: Identifying Signers Using Personal Knowledge

handshake personal knowledge

Updated 11-1-17. If a signer lacks satisfactory identification, many states permit the use of personal knowledge — that is, the Notary's own familiarity and interaction with the signer over time — as a means of identification. But it's not always easy to judge when a Notary knows someone well enough to use this option. 

This identification method dates from a time before governments issued ID cards, when people were much more likely to spend their lives in one community. The local Notary generally knew most people in town, so it was hard to impersonate a long-time friend or neighbor.

But today we live in a highly mobile society. Often we do not know our neighbors, and many people make more friends on Facebook than face to face.

Note For California Notaries

  • California is the only state that does not allow Notaries to rely on personal knowledge to verify a signer’s identity. California eliminated the personal knowledge option because a number of fraud cases involved Notaries who took part in bogus real property transactions by claiming to know the crooks who signed the documents.

 

Personal knowledge of identity, like any Notary practice, can be used or abused. When abused, identification through personal knowledge can be vulnerable to fraud. When properly used, it can be a safe way to identify signers who do not have ID.

So how do you properly use personal knowledge to identify signers? How well should you know a signer to rely on it as proof of their identity?

States That Provide Guidance
 

A number of states — including Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina — have definitions of “personal knowledge” to guide Notaries.

Pennsylvania, for example, defines personal knowledge as “ ... personally known to the notarial officer through dealings sufficient to provide reasonable certainty that the individual has the identity claimed.” Florida defines personal knowledge as: " ... an acquaintance, derived from association with the individual, which establishes the individual’s identity with at least a reasonable certainty.” In other words:

  • You have an acquaintance with the signer.
  • You have seen the signer interacting with others.
  • Those people know the signer by the same identity as you.

This goes beyond a single encounter. A Notary-paralegal at a law firm, for example, would not be able to rely on personal knowledge for a new client he or she has just met. That same paralegal would be able to use personal knowledge for a long-time client who has interacted with attorneys and other coworkers many times.

Other state guidelines require you to know signers long enough to be certain of their identities. Just how long is up to you.

States That Do Not Offer Guidance
 

However, some states do not offer specific guidance. Texas says a Notary may take an acknowledgment if the Notary knows the signer, but does not provide additional details.

If your state does not offer specific direction about personal knowledge, ask some basic questions:

  • How many times have I spoken with the signer?
  • How long have I known the signer?
  • Have many times have I seen others I know interact with the signer?
  • How often have others I know identified the signer as the same person I know them to be?
  • Do I have any reasonable doubts about the signer’s identity?
  • Am I willing to risk the consequences if I am wrong?

If you are comfortable with the answers to these questions, then go ahead and vouch for your signer’s identity. If you’re not comfortable with the answers, ask for other proof of identity.

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You can learn about ID requirements for your state from your state’s Notary handbook, website or statutes. Or check out the NNA’s Notary Primers or U.S. Notary Reference Manual, which is a member benefit.

The NNA’s Notary Essentials eLearning course guides you through your state’s ID rules as well as identification best practices.

Additional Resources:

NNA Hotline

 

 

7 Comments

Add your comment

Terri

14 Nov 2016

So in California can we or can't we use personal knowledge of a signer legally.

National Notary Association

16 Nov 2016

Hello Terri. California Notaries are not permitted to use personal knowledge to identify signers.

Judi Mosso

15 Nov 2016

Each time I begin a new journal, I require ID for everyone - even those whom I normally mark as "personally known to me". After that first ID proof, I will mark "personally known to me" for the remainder of the journal. It's an extra precaution I choose to take.

Arlene

17 Nov 2016

I have client that I verified their identification and wrote it down in my journal. A month later the same person required me to notarize another document but has lost their ID since the first time. I personally know this person in addition to seeing and verifying this person's ID. Can I notarize the document under the "Personally Known" in California? Or is an ID required every single time regardless of how well I know that person?

National Notary Association

17 Nov 2016

Hello. California does not permit Notaries to use personal knowledge of a signer as a means of identification.

Mike

06 Jan 2018

same question about "known to me" and no form of identification, when used in Massachusetts ?

National Notary Association

08 Jan 2018

Hello. A MA Notary may identify an individual based on personal knowledge of the identity of the principal; provided, however, for a person who is not a United States citizen, ‘satisfactory evidence of identity’ shall mean identification of an individual based on a valid passport or other government-issued document evidencing the individual's nationality or residence and which bears a photographic image of the individual's face and signature” (GL 222 Sec. 1).

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