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Legal Expert Discusses Common Notary Mistakes, Best Practices

Updated 4-26-22. Rules for notarizing may vary state to state, but common Notary mistakes still happen...from California to Florida...and are usually unintentional. 

Michael Closen, Professor Emeritus at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois, shares his insights about the common mistakes that land Notaries in legal trouble. He is also the author of the new book, “Professor Closen’s Notary Best Practices: Expert's Guide to Notarization of Documents.”

Prof. Closen, you have spent decades becoming one of the foremost experts in Notary-related legal issues in the country. What inspired you to dedicate so much time and energy to the world of Notaries?

One of my research assistants at the law school came in one day and asked me a question about Notary law and practice, and I didn’t know the answer. The two of us did some research and found that there was very little written about Notary law, ethics and best practices. That led the two of us to do something that should be done to correct this gap in the law and in the publications. That snowballed into 25 years of work in the Notary field.

It was that big gap that I had discovered. It was an interesting field and an important one, as we know. That’s why I got into it and have been doing it all this time.

How many court cases or disputes have you been involved with?

Over the last 25 years, I would estimate probably about 50 times I have been consulted in one form or another.

What are the most common issues that come up in these court cases?

There are some specific issues that come up all the time and probably account for at least 80 percent or more of all cases about which I have consulted.

One situation that happens tragically often is where an imposter manages to get a Notary to perform a notarization. There are some things that obviously have gone wrong in the identification process.

Identification has either been lacking altogether, and somehow a Notary has allowed the imposter to sign a document and obtain a notarization, or perhaps a Notary has been faced with a forged identification document and has been duped by that document. Unfortunately, there are situations where Notaries don’t inquire into the identification as much as they should have.

In the real world, imposters are around a lot. And with a lot of frequency, they get past Notaries. So we have to be very cautious as Notaries to try and prevent that.

The second setting is even more prevalent. Those are cases where document signers have been very elderly and/or quite ill. Sadly, there are many circumstances where people try to take financial advantage of the elderly. After it’s discovered by others, someone on the signer’s side of the matter will find out about the notarization and challenge it.

Apart from that, the other cases run the gamut, every conceivable thing that could go wrong has gone wrong.

Do you find that the Notaries involved in these cases knew they were doing something they shouldn’t? Or were they gullible and poorly informed about their duties?

In my experience, and I think this is the case across the board in reading hundreds of legal cases and hearing anecdotal accounts, rarely are Notaries guilty of intentional wrongdoing. In the great majority of cases, Notaries are simply unaware of proper procedures, a statute doesn’t clearly cover a matter or a Notary doesn’t understand what the best practice would be for a notarization.

The next largest group of cases are ones where Notaries are gullible. They are not diligent gatekeepers in protecting signers and protecting the public interest. They will occasionally allow sympathetic stories to convince them to take shortcuts or abbreviate the procedures that they should be employing to protect the notarization.

What can Notaries do to protect themselves?

The best two things Notaries can do to keep themselves out of legal disputes are Notary education and keeping a Notary journal. If Notaries learn the statutes and regulations — and understand that the statutes are incomplete and that they need to follow best practices to fill those gaps — they won’t make mistakes and won’t get into trouble.

The other thing to do is to document their diligence by keeping a Notary journal. If a Notary records every single notarization, and if there is a dispute, all of a Notary’s journal entries will go before a judge or jury. It won’t be just the entry for the one notarization, but their entire body of notarizations where they’ve shown time after time how diligent and thorough they have been.

What one thing would you like to say to every Notary in America?

I am trying to convey the message that notarization is very important. It is not child’s play. It is becoming more and more important and more complicated. Twenty years ago, we weren’t judging the mental awareness of document signers. Nowadays, Notaries need to do that. They need to assess whether signers are acting willingly.

In this day and age of document fraud and identity theft, we’ve got to be more and more cautious about identifying document signers. And documents are becoming more and more valuable. The transactions behind them are not just for a few dollars, but hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. So what I’m suggesting is that Notaries ought to take that into account.

I also would like to emphasize to every Notary, regardless of what state or territory they reside in, that their state Notary laws and regulations are incomplete. No state’s statutes are complete. And in many cases they’re quite incomplete. So Notaries ought to have as much education as they can.

Rarely are Notaries guilty of intentional wrongdoing. 


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Add your comment

Frieda Hooper

25 Jun 2018

its asking to leave comment without being able to read article. and after leaving comment still will not allow to read article keeps asking to leave comment

National Notary Association

27 Jun 2018

Hello Frieda. We're sorry you are having problems viewing an article-you should not have to leave a comment in order to do so. Can you please tell us what kind of device and browser you are using to view the article?


06 Jul 2018

can I also make a video about my services and get the nna to run it on their website for free marketing as well?

National Notary Association

06 Jul 2018

Hello, Matt. While we don't provide video hosting services for private individuals, this article has some suggestions for how you can build a web presence for your Notary business:

DD Marston

02 Oct 2018

I for some stupid reason did not renew my license, and would like to have it back

National Notary Association

03 Oct 2018

Hello. If you're referring to a Notary commission, our Customer Care team can assist you if you want to apply for a new commission. You can contact them at 1-800-876-6827.

Mahendra Singh

01 Jul 2019

My commission is expiring on 03/12/2020. If I take license renewal exam now in July or August , will my renewal of commission start immediately ? I do not want to lose out on the months for which my commission is valid. Thanks for your service & helpful guidance

National Notary Association

01 Jul 2019

Hello. If you can please contact our Customer Care team at 1-800-876-6827 and let them know what state you are currently commissioned in, they should be able to assist you with information about renewal processing times.

Leonard Wooten

08 Jun 2020

Can you do an article on split signings and also on debt cancellation signings

National Notary Association

08 Jun 2020

Hello. We have an article about split signings here:

R Miller

08 Jun 2020

Please clarify, when are you allowed to charge $7 for an oath? When you do a Jurat the cost is $15. Are you allowed to charge $7 for the oath also?

National Notary Association

08 Jun 2020

Hello. To help us answer your question, can you please tell us what state you are commissioned in?

R miller

08 Jun 2020

Commissioned in California

National Notary Association

10 Jun 2020

Thank you. When administering an oath to a witness making a deposition, a California Notary may charge a maximum fee of $7 for administering the oath to the witness. However, when administering an oath to an individual outside the deposition process, a California Notary my charge a maximum Notary fee of $15. Please see page 18 of the 2020 California Notary Public Handbook for more information:

National Debt Line

11 Mar 2021

Nice article. Very well written. The tips mentioned in the article are really useful. Thanks for sharing it.

Eleanor Davis

17 May 2021

How exactly do we determine the signors cognitive ability to make a decision? Is there an assessment that will stand up in court that we did due diligence regarding protecting an individual’s rights? I am in Texas.

National Notary Association

17 May 2021

Hello. Please see this article for more information:


17 May 2021

Can someone please explain why Lenders are requiring the Patriot Act to be completed for NON BORROWING SPOUSE? This totally violates the Privacy Act


04 Feb 2022

The article is very informative. Many people make such legal mistakes and they don't know what to do next. I think this article is a complete guide for those people who are searching asistance.

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