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Saying 'No' Can Be A Good Thing For Notaries

Notary-says-no-resized

No one likes to say “no” to a customer. But it’s almost certain that at some point you will have to turn down a signer’s request. And that’s not a bad thing.

Why? Two reasons. First, refusing an unethical or illegal request is part of your duties. Notaries have a responsibility to follow the law and should never agree to any act that violates the basic rules of notarization, or that would enable document fraud or other crimes.

Second, saying no when justified means that you are carrying out your duties carefully and responsibly. While you should never refuse a request without good reason, you should never act as a “yes man” who gives in to any demand.

When refusing a notarization, there are three important questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I have a good reason for turning down the request?
  • What do I need to record in the journal entry if I refuse a notarization?
  • How do I best protect myself if I have to appear in court due to my refusal?

Here are the answers to each of these questions.

Have Good Reason To Say ‘No’

Notaries should not refuse a request arbitrarily. Always make sure that you have good cause. You cannot turn down a request simply because of a gut feeling, a nagging suspicion or because you simply “don’t like the look” of the signer.

Some reasons for refusing are clear cut: Say, for example, the signer asks you to notarize his absent wife’s signature. Because the signer’s request would violate your state’s Notary laws, you must refuse. Another example would be if a signer asked you to falsify information in the Notary certificate, such as including a wrong date of notarization. If your signer lacks satisfactory proof of identity that complies with your state’s laws, you would also have to say no.

Other reasons are less clear cut and require you to make a judgment call, typically involving something questionable about a signer’s behavior or appearance. In these situations, you should ask questions to see if the signer allays your concerns or continues to behave in a manner that indicates you must stop the process.

A good example would be if a signer were to show up wearing a large hat and sunglasses, making it difficult to compare her appearance to the photo on her driver’s license. If the signer refuses to take off her glasses and hat or if her appearance does not match the ID photo, it may be time to stop the notarization.

Or suppose an elderly signer is accompanied by a younger relative. The signer doesn’t respond to your questions, but the relative insists the signer is willing and demands that you proceed. Unless you can speak directly with the signer without interference to make sure he understands what he is signing and is doing so willingly, you should stop things right there.

Record Your Reason In Your Journal

Your next step is to document in your journal entry why you refused the notarization. Situations where you refuse a notarization are one of the prime reasons to keep a journal. Should your decision be questioned later, having a clear record showing why you acted is one of the strongest defenses you can have against accusations of negligence or misconduct.

For every notarization, always record the essential information and signatures from the signer in your journal before performing the requested act. That way, if it turns out you have to stop the notarization and the signer leaves unexpectedly, you still have the full information to document the refusal and — if you suspect a crime — alert the police.

Be sure to clearly record why you refused the notarization and provide as many details as you can that support your reasons.

Noting something such as, “I refused because I didn’t like the way the signer looked at me,” doesn’t provide a clear reason.

But if you can say, “The signer’s hair color, age and height didn’t match his ID photo, and he acted nervously,” that’s a plausible indication that something suspicious is going on.

Saying ‘No’ For The Right Reasons Can Help Protect You In Court

Refusing a notarization for the right reasons may become the most important notarial act you will ever carry out — provided you have properly recorded the information in your journal. The reason is if you are later sued or accused of misconduct, your journal will be admissible evidence in any trial or disciplinary proceeding. Your entire journal could be scrutinized by the judge, hearing officer, jury, or discipline panel.

Judges and juries often gauge a Notary’s honesty and professionalism based on not just one notarization or journal entry, but the overall evidence in the journal. A Notary who keeps a poor journal record is not likely to be deemed trustworthy or professional. A Notary who keeps a diligent record of past notarizations — and is willing to refuse improper requests — is far more likely to receive a favorable decision in a court case.

I once testified in a multimillion-dollar trial in which a Notary was charged with negligence and fraud in the performance of three specific notarizations. Over a period of several years, the Notary had recorded more than 1,200 notarizations, including one refusal to notarize. I testified about how the journal and refusal showed that this Notary had acted thoroughly and conscientiously for years. Some of the jurors were smiling and nodding as I explained what the journal showed. The verdict went in favor of the Notary.

The law’s reasonable care standard is the Notary’s best friend. You will not be held liable if you show that you have exercised reasonable care in conducting the notarization. And a detailed journal is the best way to prove reasonable care. So, always, always, always keep a detailed journal record of every act — especially if you have to say no.

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: 

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5 Comments

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Melanie

15 Jul 2019

I am a California notary, but I choose to notarize only business documents for my employer. Occasionally, I will notarize personal documents (free of charge) for fellow employees during business hours, which is allowed by my employer. When asked to notarize a personal document, I let the signer know that I do not notarize real estate documents. Can I refuse to notarize real estate documents or must I perform the notarization?

National Notary Association

22 Jul 2019

Hello. Please see this article for more information: https://www.nationalnotary.org/notary-bulletin/blog/2015/07/when--no-and-when-refusing-not-allowed

Megan Cook

15 Jul 2019

What is the proper way to go about recording in your notary journal if they are refusing to provide identification? I know you cannot proceed with the notarization, however, it would be very difficult to provide much information in the journal to protect yourself as a notary if they won't give you any information.

National Notary Association

22 Jul 2019

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

MisterJ

16 Jul 2019

Good article. There are also the times when your job paid for you to be a notary so you can notarize company documents, and they require you to turn down notarizations during company time if they are not related to your employment (if your state permits that).

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