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Most states encourage Notary training

National Notary Magazine Cover December 2015

(Originally published as "The Case For Education" in the December 2015 issue of The National Notary magazine.)

Imagine a world where all you had to do to get a driver’s license was pass a written test about the rules of the road. You wouldn’t need to take driver’s education or pass a driving test to prove your skill behind the wheel. Take it a step further. What if some states didn’t even require you to pass a test? All you needed to do is complete an application and pay a fee. How safe do you think our roads would be?

Now imagine that same situation applied to a workforce of 4.4 million state-appointed officials who are responsible for protecting American citizens from fraud.

You don’t have to imagine it. It’s the reality of the Notary commissioning process. Only 18 states and the District of Columbia require any kind of testing or education (see chart below) to become a Notary.

That means 32 states don’t think Notaries need any kind of training or preparation to carry out their duties. Among them are Texas, which has more than 400,000 Notaries; Illinois, with 173,000; and New Jersey, with 124,000.

For the jurisdictions that do require training and/or testing, most only cover Notary law, not Notary practice.

The California Notary exam, for example, tests applicants on the fines levied for certain offenses, said Steven Bastian, Vice President of Product Development for the National Notary Association. “But it doesn’t test you on the steps you should take to avoid the offenses in the first place.”

That’s akin to knowing the fines for speeding but not how to operate the brakes.

In short, a majority of America’s Notaries are woefully unprepared to carry out their duties. And that puts countless daily transactions at risk.

Does Notary education matter?

Our society seems to have a love-hate relationship with Notaries.

On the one hand, the fact that there are so many Notaries indicates that consumers, businesses and government agencies alike greatly value — and rely upon — notarizations to lend trust to important transactions.

On the other hand, so few states think it’s worthwhile giving Notaries much, if any, training. When Notary education measures come up in state legislatures, some of the most vocal opponents are business groups that see training requirements as an unnecessary burden and expense.

This disconnect can have serious ramifications. When Notaries fail to do their jobs properly, homeowners can find themselves on the street; candidates are kicked off the ballot; and seniors are bilked out of their life savings.

Perhaps the most egregious example in recent years was the “robo-signing” scandal from late 2010.

The scandal arose after the housing market crash when hundreds of thousands of homes fell into foreclosure. To keep up with the necessary foreclosure paperwork, lenders hired law firms and other third-party contractors, who cut corners implementing improper notarization and document handling procedures. Among other things, stacks of documents were notarized without the signer being present; Notary stamps were shared with co-workers; and large numbers of blank documents were notarized, to be filled in later.

Ultimately, a number of major lenders entered into a $25 billion settlement with 49 state Attorneys General. Among the non-financial terms were requirements to make sure lender employees and outside contractors were properly trained.

More recently, a Florida state legislator lost his spot on the ballot because Notaries made mistakes on his election paperwork.

Arguably, the most essential element of any notarization is the requirement for the signer to be physically present at the time of the notarization. That’s so the other requirements can be met.

That requirement seems to be a no-brainer, yet anecdotal evidence suggests that the failure to require personal appearance is the single biggest reason Notaries get in trouble.

For example, more than two thirds of the complaints against Colorado Notaries involve the lack of personal appearance, according to the Secretary of State’s office — one of the few agencies that releases such statistics. Those numbers are in line with the claims statistics for the NNA’s bond and errors & omissions insurance program.

In so many cases, well-intentioned Notaries do the wrong thing because they don’t know any better.

Recognizing the need for Notary education

Notaries themselves often understand how ill-prepared they are. The NNA Hotline receives more than 130,000 calls a year from Notaries who need help, and they often ask about the most basic requirements of the office, such as the types of ID they can accept or what notarization is required.

The most popular articles posted on the NNA’s Notary Bulletin cover the essential duties of the office, such as:

5 Steps To A Proper Notarization”;

Your Guide To Notary Oaths And Affirmations”; and

Understanding The Key Differences Between Notary Acknowledgment and Jurat Certificates”.

More than 100,000 Notaries view these articles each week.

Continuing Education Resources For Notaries

Here are a number of educational resources available to every Notary.

“Becoming a Notary looks simpler than it really is,” said Peter Grant, a Pasadena, California, Notary and CPA. He was surprised by the sheer number of different documents he was asked to notarize — and he wasn’t always sure what to do with some of them.

Julie Brickley of Colorado Springs, Colorado, recalled that her three-hour state-required class did not prepare her for the time she had to notarize two powers of attorney documents for a hospitalized signer who was paralyzed from the neck down and could not speak.

Fortunately, Brickley carried a reference guide to her state’s Notary laws. She worked out a way to communicate non-verbally with the signer and was able to complete the notarization based on the procedures in the reference book.

In many cases, the notarized documents do not involve large dollar amounts, but rather personal life decisions. A notarization can involve something as simple as an advanced healthcare directive for a baby boomer planning for retirement, or a permission form for a minor to travel overseas without one or both parents.

They may seem like small things, but they are important to the people involved.

Many of the NNA’s corporate clients, including national companies, are requiring their staff Notaries to go through Notary Essentials to make sure they follow professional standards of practice. This tutorial teaches students how to perform their core duties.

So far this year, thousands of Notaries have taken the course. A major impetus for that training is coming from businesses. Many of the NNA’s corporate clients, including national companies, are requiring their staff Notaries to go through Notary Essentials to make sure they follow professional standards of practice.

Keeping up with change

Major changes have begun to transform the workplace, as a growing number of companies that do business in multiple states, or nationwide, are creating standardized corporate Notary procedures for both consistency and security. Corporations see these policies as necessary but challenging, because every state has its own Notary requirements.

A company’s policy may go above and beyond state laws in order to meet liability and legal requirements. If you work for one of these firms, you may be expected to keep a journal, even if it is not required by your state. Or you may need to require multiple forms of satisfactory evidence of identity.

This trend is particularly evident in the financial industry, where technology has enabled lenders to consolidate their loan origination operations in one or two offices. These offices receive and process applications from all over the country, and direct the activities of other departments or outside vendors, such as title and settlement services companies.

These same lenders have hundreds, even thousands, of Notaries on staff who must keep up with the evolving demands of the workplace while fulfilling their duties as a Notary.

Moreover, the Closing Disclosure rule from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that went into effect in October has changed the look and information of the loan document packages. Many lenders and title companies now require the NSAs they work with to be able to show proof that they are familiar with these changes in order to get loan signing assignments. As a result, many signing agents are going through the NNA’s NSA Continuing Education.

In today’s multi-cultural world, it’s also much more likely that any Notary will encounter unfamiliar documents and strange situations.

That’s why ongoing learning is so important. In fact, many employers expect — and even insist — that employees keep educating themselves, says Jay Halfond, Associate Professor of Administrative Sciences at Boston University and an expert on continuing education.

“Continuing education is a means of staying in touch with developments in your profession and acquiring new skills,” he said.

The workplace isn’t the only driver of change. In 2015 alone, 21 states have enacted 40 Notary laws or rules — and the measures in more than a dozen states have a real impact on how Notaries do their jobs on a day-to-day basis.

Washington State, for example, amended its administrative rules to permit Notaries to accept current U.S. or foreign passports. A Tennessee measure made important changes to the state’s journal-keeping requirements. Nevada added advertising restrictions. And Montana became the second state to authorize webcam notarizations.

Notaries who don’t keep up with these changes could encounter serious problems. If, for example, your state changes the wording of acknowledgment certificates, but you don’t know about it, you’d keep using the old certificate language — until documents started getting rejected by the receiving agencies.

LaQuita Gaskins of Radcliff, Kentucky, the NNA’s 2015 Notary of the Year, noted that it is also important to keep up with trends other than Notary laws.

“State driver’s license formats have changed a lot in recent years,” she said. “Now some licenses have a bar with graphics, and some include a thumbprint.”

Prepare for the unexpected

At some point in your career, you will surely run into a situation that wasn’t covered in your basic Notary training — if you had any. No matter how thorough your original training may have been, you’ll probably be presented with an ID you don’t recognize, encounter a signer who can’t communicate clearly, or face other unusual situations that aren’t covered in a textbook.

Joseph Reeves of Sherman, Texas, chose to take a Notary education class when he first applied for a commission, even though it’s not required in his state.

Reeves described one situation where he was asked to notarize the signature of a borrower taking out a reverse mortgage, but the only identification the signer had was an expired passport issued in Mexico. On top of that, the signer was bedridden and heavily medicated.

“Knowing that the signer has to be coherent and understand what they are doing goes all the way back to the basic Notary course I took when I was first commissioned, and has been reinforced in training since then,” Reeves said.

Had he not taken regular refresher courses, he might not have realized the signer’s condition and passport were a problem.

“Any skill can get rusty if it’s not used or refreshed regularly,” he said. “Laws change. Technology advances. Notaries need to stay ‘in the loop’ so the knowledge they possess doesn’t become outdated.”

David Thun is the Assistant Managing Editor with the National Notary Association.

Related Articles:

Avoid common Notary certificate mistakes

Habits and missteps that could put Notaries at risk

Notaries at Risk: What claims statistics say

5 common mistakes that can lead to legal problems

When to say 'no' … and when refusing a notarization is not allowed

Additional Resources:

NNA Hotline

Trusted Notary Training for Employees

View All: Notary News


Add your comment

11 Feb 2016

Thanks for this article. Enjoyed reading it and I wish Washington state would require mandatory education for beginners and even to the point of passing a test. Refresher course to old timers every other renewal. I am an old timer and that is what I look forward to every year at the annual convention.

Valerie L Vanderbrook

15 Feb 2016

The State of Wisconsin does require an online self-administered test in order to be commissioned. This was not on your list. I do however wish Wisconsin would provide MORE training. I rely on reading the newsletter and reviewing what little our stae does publish as a guide.

Patricia glasper

15 Feb 2016

Nevada is now requiring and exam to be taken for first time and renewals


15 Feb 2016

Maryland has the Title Producer requirement which to me is useless! It limits people but does not educate them in areas they need it or where it would be useful.


20 Feb 2016

In New Jersey, a notary was to observe someone sign a document and then sign and seal. Simple. Now the world wants to make something simple into something complicated. I determined who you were by your ID and saw you sign a paper. End of story basically. I can only speak for NJ.

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