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A Notary’s guide to different kinds of signatures

ack signature resized(Originally published in the September 2018 issue of The National Notary magazine.)

Throughout human history, people have signed documents the same way: with pen and ink. Sometimes they wrote out their names. Sometimes they made a mark. But in the modern age, signatures can take on many different forms: handwritten, signature stamp, a digital certificate, a typed name on a pdf, a checked box on your Amazon order and more.

For Notaries, this poses a 21st century challenge. Your task is to verify that the signature on a document belongs to the person who appears before you. But exactly what constitutes a signature? What makes a signature acceptable? And how would you know whether a symbol, a checked box or a typed name on a digital document is a genuine signature?

For all the technological advancements of the 21st century, countless times a day we still put pen to paper to sign our names to all kinds of documents: from credit card receipts to school permission slips to home purchases to laws enacted by Congress.

The way we do this has not changed much since humankind invented writing and paper. People generally sign paper documents in only a couple of ways — by handwriting their name on a document with pen and ink, or by making a mark to represent their signature. This can be a symbol impressed in wax on a paper document, or by drawing an “X” by hand.

One of the most basic features of every paper notarization is the signature, whether an individual signs in front of the Notary or acknowledges that the signature is his or hers. Nevertheless, the signature can be the source of much confusion, mistaken notarial practice, and possibly invalidate the notarization.

What defines a signature for Notaries?

Under the law in every state, a signature can be any mark or symbol which the signer intends to serve as her or his symbol to authenticate the document. Thus, a signature can be a handwritten name, a printed or typed name, or a symbol of some sort such as an “X” or a signature stamp.

For a notarization, as long as the signature is either signed or acknowledged in front of you, it is acceptable for notarization.

If the signer is physically unable to write a signature, the law will accommodate the signer in one of two ways. However, before addressing those two methods of accommodation, we should emphasize that the signer is the one to determine whether he or she is unable to write a conventional signature and wishes to use an alternative. The law does not require it to be impossible for the signer to handwrite a signature, nor does it require you to demand proof of inability of the signer to personally perform the signing. Perhaps, the signer is uncomfortable with physical signing or has developed a shaky hand and is embarrassed to personally attempt to sign. It should be up to the signer to choose the method for signing.

The signer should be permitted to seek accommodation and allowed to utilize one of two methods:

• Use a signature by a mark or symbol, or

• Authorize a surrogate to execute a signature on her or his behalf.

In either case, the signature can be notarized.

Notarizing a signature by mark

Regarding a signature by mark or symbol, the classic example is the handmade “X.” But, another mark or symbol can be used, including the image from a signature stamp bearing a facsimile of the signer’s signature or the printed name of the signer.

In some jurisdictions, there is a specified procedure to follow in conducting a notarization of a signature by mark, such as the need for one or two witnesses and noting of the use of a mark in the notarial certificate. In other jurisdictions, the notarization of a signature by mark is handled as the notarization of any other signature.

In either case, you should prepare a detailed Notary journal entry describing the circumstances regarding the signing by mark.

Can you notarize a signature by surrogate?

For the use of a surrogate, there also are two possible options. Some jurisdictions have Notary laws specifying how to conduct the signing by a surrogate (perhaps by you or another individual) and the notarization of the signature executed by the surrogate.

If the jurisdiction in question has no such law, you should allow a third person to sign on behalf of the signer with the signer’s consent and should fully note such circumstances in both the notarial certificate and the journal entry.

What to do about illegible signatures

Everyone jokes about the unreadable signatures which doctors scribble, but the truth is that many people’s signatures are illegible. And that’s OK because you should be sure the signer’s name and signature are correctly recorded — so we will be able to tell whose signature was affixed.

You should legibly write or print the signer’s name in both the notarial certificate and the journal entry (and will compare the name and signature with those appearing on the signer’s ID[s]). You also should require the signer to place a signature in the journal entry for every type of document notarization. This will give you three signatures or scribbles to compare. Hence, you can exercise reasonable care in regard to the signature issue, so an illegible signature is not really a problem after all.

Originals versus copies of signatures on paper

For signatures on paper documents, the law has always required that only original signatures may be notarized. This view coincides nicely with the prevailing requirement for the document signer to be physically in the presence of the Notary during the notarization.

On the other hand, copies or photocopies of signatures cannot be notarized. Thus, for example, you could not notarize a signature on a paper document when communicating with a signer at another location by audio-video technology if the original document were not in your possession. (Note: Only Montana permits remote notarization of paper documents, but the document must be in the Notary’s possession.) Even if the signer were to sign a document on camera in your view and immediately fax it to you, you could not notarize it. The reason for this is that the signature received by fax would be a copy — not the original.

Keep compassion and accommodation in mind

Remember, no mentally competent person should be denied notarial service simply because he or she is unable to write a traditional signature. If a competent individual is unable to write a traditional ‘John Hancock’ signature, there will always be a way to accommodate the individual to permit the affixing of a signature that the law will approve and that can then be notarized.

The savvy Notary who is careful and thorough should never be surprised or confused by issues regarding signatures, especially if you undertake a diligent identification of the signer and record the details of the notarization in the notarial certificate and your journal.

Michael Closen is Professor Emeritus at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois. A respected consultant on model Notary statutes and legislation, Closen served on the drafting committees for The Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility and various editions of the Model Notary Act, and recently authored the book, Professor Closen’s Notary Best Practices: Expert's Guide to Notarization of Documents.

Timothy Reiniger is a licensed attorney in California and Washington, D.C. He leads the Timothy Reiniger LLC advisory practice from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He is an author of the Virginia online notarization law as well as the Virginia Digital Identity Management Law. As a nationally recognized expert on the Notary office and identity policy, he has testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and The Hague Conference on Private International Law, and was appointed as an ABA Advisor to the Uniform Law Commission Committee for the Revised Uniform Law on Notarial Acts.

Related Articles:

Notarizing a signature by proxy

Electronic Signatures: Changing the game for Notaries

View All: Best Practices


Add your comment

Cheryl Kaster

20 Nov 2018

Hawaii permits a disable signer who cannot sign or make a mark (i.e., spinal cord injuries that result in paralysis) to verbally authorize the Notary Public to sign for them. There must also be a statement from the signer's physician that the signer is physically unable to make a mark or sign, and that the signer is capable of making their own decisions. My question with regard to the statement in this article that the signer can instruct someone else to sign for them is: is this legal advice? I see wording sometimes that apparently comes from Hawaii law but not from our Notary Law that I have ever seen. Is the information provided by the NNA actually legal advice?

National Notary Association

20 Nov 2018

Hello Sheryl. As stated in the article above, "It should be up to the signer to choose the method for signing." If state law permits a physically impaired signer to use an alternative option such as authorizing another individual to sign in their place, the signer may certainly do so. However, it would not be appropriate for a nonattorney Notary to make that decision on the signer's behalf.


07 Mar 2019

My question is do I need to become an enotary in Virginia to notarize an electronic signature or is that status only for remote notarizations. Meaning my boss is physically present but signs the document electronically instead of hand signing. Please advise.

National Notary Association

11 Mar 2019

Hello. Yes, you would need to submit an application to perform electronic notarizations. According to the Virginia Handbook for Notaries Public, in order to become an electronic notary, the applicant must first be a commissioned Virginia Notary Public. In addition, prior to submitting an electronic notary application, the applicant must purchase an electronic seal from an electronic notary seal provider. The electronic seal is a required item on the electronic notary application.

Christi Lynch

28 Jun 2019

What if notary has an injury to dominant hand? Can or should they still notarize documents?

National Notary Association

01 Jul 2019

Hello. We are not aware of any state that prohibits a Notary from signing with a different hand if the Notary's dominant hand is injured.

Mandi Allen

08 Aug 2019

Hello. I'm curious as to how someone would get a document notarized with they verbally cannot consent but can consent through head nods. He is physically disabled and can lift his arms, hold a pen but cannot sign. He can agree and disagree with individuals but cannot speak. Would getting a document notarized be impossible?

National Notary Association

12 Aug 2019

Hello. To help us answer your question, can you please tell us what state the disabled person is located in, and if the Notary is commissioned in the same state?

Irene Jacusis

21 Nov 2019

A signed copy of a document was brought in to be notarized. I explained that I could not notarize a copy. My supervisor asked if she signed it and wrote "for" next to the copied signature if that would be acceptable. Please advise.

National Notary Association

21 Nov 2019

Based on what you’ve described, we think it would be best if you contacted our Hotline team by phone and provided them with a more detailed description of the situation. The NNA Hotline: 1-888-876-0827 Mon – Fri: 5:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. (PT) Saturday: 5:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (PT) If you’re not an NNA Member or Hotline Subscriber, they will provide you with a one-time courtesy call.


19 Feb 2020

In the state of Alabama, is it legal and binding to sign a letter that includes an electronic signature?

National Notary Association

19 Feb 2020

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

Mona Stokes

09 May 2020

Some companies are telling Signing Agents the signer must sign their documents legible (first, last, etc.) even if that is not their normal signature. Their normal signature looked more like a doctor's signature and less.

12 Jun 2020

I was told that in a loan signing buyer must sign their name exactly as written on loan docs. However, on the DL they sign with a scribble. Which is the acceptable signature? The DL signature or signing out their entire name as shown on loan doc?

National Notary Association

15 Jun 2020

Based on what you’ve described, we think it would be best if you contacted our Hotline team by phone and provided them with a more detailed description of the situation. The NNA Hotline: 1-888-876-0827 Mon – Fri: 5:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. (PT) Saturday: 5:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (PT) If you’re not an NNA Member or Hotline Subscriber, they will provide you with a one-time courtesy call.

Scott corneau

18 Jul 2020

Is there a abbreviation that can be used for any day to day signatures that will allow people to know you are a notary. Ex: Jon Doe MD

National Notary Association

24 Jul 2020

Hello. No, there is not a specific abbreviation. When performing notarizations, Notaries should always sign their name following any requirements set by their state Notary laws.

Alice Wildon

15 Sep 2020

I would like to become one of your notaries.

Cathy Halls

27 Jan 2021

I would also like an answer to what Iblink20 asked on Jun 12, 2020. I had the same issue on my very first signing. I was told by my trainer that I'm not allowed to tell someone how to sign their name, yet in another training I was in, I was told to tell them to sign exactly as it is written on their loan documents and ID.

National Notary Association

02 Feb 2021

It is true that, as a Notary, you cannot tell a person how to sign their name. However, in the case of loan signings, the lender will often require the signer to sign exactly as it appears on the document. When it is a requirement of a lender (or escrow company), then you can tell them that they must sign as it appears on the signature line per the lender's requirements in order for the documents to be accepted.

William T. Burke

22 Mar 2021

This article is extremely important because it hit you like a brick. In my life I have had the privilege to associate with people that have had to battle with Epilepsy and various injuries that are truly lucky to be able to even make a signature of any kind.


07 Feb 2022

how do you become the owner of the electronic device, in other words, is there an app that we purchase for customers to upload their documents? or What software do we use for this electronic signature, if you have a small business

National Notary Association

07 Feb 2022

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

Vir Santillan

22 Sep 2022

Question if they are not able to sign Can we use fingerprint ? This would be for a POA Specially for people with down syndrome here in Texas if they are over 18 they ask partners for a POA

National Notary Association

26 Sep 2022

Hello. In Texas, “‘Signed’ includes any symbol executed or adopted by a person with present intention to authenticate a writing” (GC 311.005[6]). “The individual signing the document may sign in whatever manner he/she chooses. The name or manner of signing by the signor is not the responsibility of the notary public. However, the notary public does have a responsibility to make sure that the information contained in the notarial certificate is accurate. For example, if John Doe appears before a notary public and signs the instrument with an ‘X’ the notary public should still state in the notarial certificate that John Doe personally appeared on a given date” (Secretary of State's website, “Frequently Asked Questions for Notaries Public”).

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