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What Would You Do Answers: The Case Of The Child Servant

Are you allowed to notarize a child servant document? Notary Answers.

Last week we posed the real-life situation of the Notary who was asked to acknowledge the signature on an agreement to purchase a 10-year-old Haitian boy as an indentured servant.

We asked our Notary community to weigh in on the question: What would you do if you were in this situation?

Your Answers

Notary Diane Elliott wrote that she would notarize the document, “then call child protective services. What she is doing is against the law.”

Elaine Wright Harris, the NNA’s 2009 Notary of the Year, had a different approach. “I would tell the signer, ‘Based on the oath I took as a Notary Public to support the Constitution of the United States… which states that involuntary servitude shall not exist, I cannot notarize this document.’ I would note the reason why I refused in my journal.”

“I would not notarize the document because I believe the document was for an illegal act,” wrote Lorraine Ohrenich. “I would also try to get down the signer's ID information in order to report it to the local police.”

“I can't imagine that purchasing a 10-year-old Haitian boy as an indentured servant for 10 years is legal but I would want to have some legal support in the event that my refusal spawned legal action,” wrote Mark D Stelter.

Mary Fahey said she would notarize the document, but then check with her attorney to see if she could report the situation to federal immigration authorities.

Notary Elaine McKenna was very emphatic. “Sometimes what is legal is not moral. Placing a minor in indentured servitude is immoral. If the requester doesn't like my refusal then she can take it up with the Secretary of State.”

NNA Recommendations

As reprehensible as the agreement appears, it raises important questions about a Notary’s duty as an impartial witness and public official.

The answers to those questions depend on the requirements of the state where you are commissioned. And those requirements run the gamut.

In this scenario, the Notary was presented a hand-written document and culled from it a number of details, including the age and home country of the boy, and the fact that the agreement was to last for 10 years.

Generally speaking, a Notary should only peruse the document to make sure there are no blank spaces and determine the title or description for their journal entry. Beyond that, it is considered an invasion of the signer’s privacy to read the contents.

In fact, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Wyoming are among the states that have enacted a law or published a best practice — based on the NNA-published Model Notary Act — that includes the following provision:

 “A Notary has neither the duty nor the authority to investigate, ascertain, or attest the lawfulness, propriety, accuracy, or truthfulness of a document or transaction involving a notarial act.”

Other states take the opposite view. Mississippi, for example, last year adopted an administrative rule that requires Notaries to “examine” the document to determine if the notarization is being requested for an unlawful or improper purpose.

If a Mississippi Notary has “good reason to believe” that the notarization is intended for an unlawful or improper purpose, they must refuse the request.

Some states are much more restrictive when it comes to refusing requests. California law says Notaries have a duty to perform authorized notarial acts when requested.

According to the Arizona Notary Public Reference Manual, “A Notary Public cannot refuse a notarization of a document if a reasonable request is made.”

It goes on to list the reasons why an Arizona Notary can say “No.” They all involve issues related to the notarization, such as the lack of acceptable ID or proper guidance about the type of notarization being requested. None of them involve the legality or morality of the document contents.

In states that offer little or no guidance, the Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility provides sound direction.

The Code stipulates that a Notary should refuse to perform any notarial act involving a document or transaction that the Notary knows, or reasonably suspects, is illegal, dishonest, deceptive, false or improper (IV-E-2).

So if you are ever presented with an unusual request such as this, make sure you’re familiar with the requirements and guidelines of your state. You also can contact the NNA Hotline for help.

Michael Lewis is Managing Editor of member publications for the National Notary Association.

Related Articles:

WWYD: 2 Women, Same Name — Your Answers

WWYD: Answers To The Case Of The Anonymous Egg Donor

WWYD: Answers To The Case Of The Transgender Signer

Additional Resources:

NNA Webinar: Strange, Unusual and Bizarre Requests

State Law Summaries



View All: Best Practices


Add your comment

Michelle Howard

16 May 2016

Thank you for the informative dialog's. Keeps me up to date and well informed.

Joy McGowan

16 May 2016

Regarding the 10 yr old. I would decline signing this document.

A. C. Dye

16 May 2016

I would first call the Notary Hotline to confirm the requirements for my state....then refuse to sign since it is considered an illegal act ....noting my journal of 1st calling the Notary Hotline and my refusal to sign (if permitted by my state).

A. C. Dye

16 May 2016

I would first contact the Notary Hotline to find out the requirements of my State and if permitted refuse to notarize based on it being an illegal act. Note everything in my journal.

Sonia Little

16 May 2016

I'd reject it in a heartbeat! a "person!!" Especially a child!!! for sale? Come on. I don't know what the 2 people who said they'd notarize was on. 😠

Steven Coyne

16 May 2016

The example given, i.e. The "purchase" of a human being, is an over the top, obvious scenario of "illegality". We're I, as a Notary, required to determine the legality of transactions in all documents fo which I was asked to notarized, I would, without question, need a law degree and proof that I passed the Bar Exam in my state. All would agree, notary or not, most or even ALL documents we are asked to notarized are somewhat more nuanced than a flagrant infringement of the 17th amendment or any other Constitutional amendments for that matter.

Mark P Weisberg

16 May 2016

I would have a different take on this question because in addition to being a Notary Public I am also a Constable. As such I am considered to be a peace officer, sworn to uphold the laws of the commonwealth. Now the conundrum: Do I follow the law as it pertains to the notarial act, or do I report what would generally be perceived as an illegal contract that puts the minor child at risk?

zenda z

16 May 2016

Can't read this. Comment box covers the entire article

Zenda Zender

16 May 2016

The comment box covers the entire article. Have to submit comment to read.

Sandra Tarbet

16 May 2016

I would get all the information I could get as if I were going to notarize it. Then I would call the police. No way am I going to be a part of an illegal/immoral action. This is child slavery. If I lost my notary over it, so be it.


16 May 2016

Your duty as a notary is to verify the persons signature that is all. I would notarize it and then report it.

M. Martinez

16 May 2016

It is difficult for me to believe that any state would permit the notarization of a document such as the one put forth in this scenario, but "California law says Notaries have a duty to perform authorized notarial acts when requested." I could not and would not in good conscious comply with this notarial request. Period.


16 May 2016

Even if I was a notary in a state where I'm not allowed to determine the legality of a document, if I ever got a document like this that was illegal, I would still refuse it. Like I said in the comment in my last post, what is the signer going to do? Report me for official misconduct? They would have to know that they would be exposing themselves too. No jury in their right mind would convict a notary for refusing to notarize an illegal document like that.

Emma Morales

16 May 2016

Since when we have the right to sell a human. I don't notarize any document staying that is a selling of not only a kid any human.

Priscilla McGriff

16 May 2016

I would not notarized that document.

Dawn Guthrie-Clark

16 May 2016

Human trafficking is a horrible crime. "Indentured servitude" is the same as slavery, and chances are that this child was going to do more than wash the dishes. I would have them sign my book and get their ID. I would notarize or not notarize depending on which would be least likely to arouse suspicion. I would then leave and immediately call the police.


16 May 2016

None of us is there to evaluate the validity of the document. Our morals and opinions can't cloud our responsibility to perform notarizations properly. If the signer has valid ID and meets the other criteria required to perform the requested act then why are we trying to figure out the legality of his contract. That's the signer's responsibility. In addition, if the contract is illegal then it automatically will be unenforceable (invalid). Why let your opinions/ morals cloud your responsibility to notarize documents?

Ron T

16 May 2016

For California I recommend reading Penal Code: 236.1(a)., And see California Assembly Bill 477.

Poem Bongiovi

16 May 2016

You gotta be kidding with an article like this. You are the reason this country is in as poor a shape as it is. In EVERY aspect of the law, there is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. You must have enough common sense to know when to obey the right set of morals, and if you go "by the book" when you see a CHILD being sold, you don't deserve to be alive, as you have zero morals, and zero neurons.

Diann Perkins

26 May 2016

As for the document on the 10 year boy, I wouldn't notarize it, because it shouldn't be hand written if the document legal. The sale or to slave anyone is not moral

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