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Notary Bulletin

Feature

4 career-ending Notary mistakes

Notary careers are a lot like relationships — they need care and consideration to thrive, and basic rules must be followed to avoid serious complications, or even failure. Whether self-employed or working for someone else, many Notaries mistakenly assume that they have nothing to worry about when performing their duties. But certain mistakes are grave enough that they can cost a Notary their career.

As impartial, trusted public servants, you are expected to perform your duties with care, respond to all lawful requests without discrimination, take care to protect your seal and journal, and never overstep your bounds by offering advice or counsel you are not qualified to dispense. You are expected to be honest, keep private matters private while disclosing what's public, and always be conscientious and diligent.

This is true whether you perform notarizations occasionally, or every day. Even a seemingly inconsequential mistake, such as a favor for a friend, can be devastating.

To illustrate the point, here are four real-life cases where Notaries faced serious consequences, such as facing jail time, losing careers and being named in six-figure lawsuits due to easily avoidable mistakes. In some cases, Notaries made what seemed at first to be very small errors — such as accepting a photo of an ID instead of the real ID, but they all resulted in significant fallout. In other cases, Notaries were accused of fraud and knowingly participating in schemes that were illegal.

It doesn't take that much effort to stay on the right side of the law. Notaries who follow protocol, keep up to date on new laws and regulations, avoid shortcuts and refrain from offering improper advice will live in territory that's about as safe as one could reasonably expect.

Don't give in to pressure

A Cincinnati, Ohio, mobile Notary got a call one day from a couple needing some documents notarized. The appointment turned out to be in a parking lot. The couple brought deeds transferring ownership of four area homes to them, and they wanted the signature of the current homeowners notarized. There was just one problem: none of the homeowners were present.

The Notary later admitted to a local reporter that the couple "convinced" her to notarize the deeds despite the absent signers. If the Notary thought that was it, she was mistaken.

With the notarized deeds in hand, the couple filed them with the Hamilton County Auditor's Office. Because they were notarized, the auditor's office accepted them at face value, and the properties were transferred to the couple, according to local media reports. It turned out that none of the homeowners had signed the deeds transferring their property. It was all a scam to steal their homes.

When the scam was discovered, the police came knocking on the Notary's door. The couple were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison terms, but the authorities were not done.

The Notary was instrumental in helping a couple fraudulently steal four homes out from under their true owners, according to news reports. As a result, the Notary was indicted on four counts of tampering with records, according to the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts. Her case was still pending when The National Notary went to press.

Besides facing criminal charges and the embarrassment of public censure and news reports, she no longer is a Notary. According to the Ohio Secretary of State's office, the commission, which was valid through 2023, is listed as inactive/resigned. So a woman who started a mobile Notary business has now lost that business and is facing possible criminal penalties.

Failing to require signers to be present at the notarization is the number one claim of misconduct against Notaries. This case demonstrates why such a transgression is so serious. Had the Notary not allowed herself to be "convinced" to do something she knew was not right, she'd still be in business, and the deed fraud scheme potentially may have been thwarted.

The case also underscores how much power rests in any notarization. Notarized signatures on a deed is proof to a county recorder's office that the forged signatures are real.

Dishonesty never pays

While the Cincinnati Notary landed in trouble for one bad act, a North Carolina attorney committed a series of misdeeds, including two involving Notary misconduct.

In one instance, according to a North Carolina State Bar Association disciplinary order, the attorney, who also was a Notary, served as the administrator of a deceased man's estate. As part of her duties, she submitted a document to the local court purportedly signed by all three heirs to the estate granting permission to sell property. All the signatures were notarized by the attorney. However, one of the heirs did not sign the document, and therefore had not agreed to the sale.

In another instance, the attorney was preparing an estate plan for a client that required a title transfer of property held jointly by the client and her husband. The attorney notarized the signatures on the relevant documents without the client and her husband being present.

The attorney was disbarred, ordered to relinquish her law license and required to pay the costs of her own disciplinary hearing, according to the state bar association's disciplinary order. She also was convicted of two misdemeanor charges of performing a notarial act without the principal appearing. (In a statement to local media, the attorney claimed her mistakes were innocent, and said she was appealing the disbarment.)

The disciplinary order specifically calls out her refusal to take responsibility for her actions, her refusal to explain who she is and who she represents, and her lack of care in following basic procedure, which all undermine trust.

"Defendant has engaged in a pattern of intentionally dishonest conduct across numerous different contexts," the order noted, adding later, "Defendant's acts of Notary fraud demonstrate that she prioritized her own convenience and expediency over the integrity of the judicial process.

"When an attorney knowingly submits a forged and falsely notarized document to the court, it causes significant harm to the profession and the administration of justice," the order added. "Here, Defendant's knowing submission of the falsely notarized Petition and Consent Judgment caused significant potential harm … by causing the court to order the sale of the land when there was no legal or factual basis upon which to do so."

The essence of a Notary's role is to "serve all of the public in an honest, fair and impartial manner," notes the first Guiding Principle of The Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility.

Whatever reason the attorney had for breaking the rules, she lost her license to practice law and earned herself a criminal record.

Protect yourself against impostors

The next case involves one of a Notary's most essential duties: verifying the identity of signers.

In this instance, a California Notary was asked to notarize the signature on a deed of trust. The signer didn't have an actual ID, but instead presented a grainy photocopy of an ID card. The Notary accepted it and completed the notarization, only to discover later that the signer was an impostor, said Kim McPartland, claims examiner for Merchants Bonding Company, which provides bond and E&O services for the National Notary Association.

The title company sued the Notary for $180,000, McPartland said, and he was held partly liable because he relied on a photocopy of an ID card instead of requiring the actual ID.

The Notary's attorney ended up settling for just $25,000, but even that amount could have done serious damage to the Notary's business and his career. "Had the Notary not had an errors and omissions policy, we couldn't have helped with attorney's fees or the settlement amount; the Notary would have been responsible for bearing significant costs on his own," McPartland said.

Don't ignore the details

This last case is an example of how even the missing a small detail could lead to serious consequences.

It involves another California Notary who was handling a signing for a real estate transaction. Under California law, Notaries are required to obtain a thumbprint from signers for any real estate-related document. Only the Notary failed to get a thumbprint for this signer, who was an impostor and pulling a scam.

The title company sued the Notary claiming that if she had obtained the thumbprint, the title company would have been able to trace the imposter's true identity. The lawsuit sought $250,000 in damages, McPartland said. Merchants settled with the title company on the Notary's behalf for $50,000. If the Notary hadn't had errors and omissions insurance, she would have been on the hook for the settlement amount and attorneys' fees.

"Tiny little things can come back and not only end the Notary's career but ... put them into bankruptcy."

Merchants Bonding Claims Examiner Kim McPartland

"Tiny little things can come back and not only end the Notary's career but potentially put them into bankruptcy," McPartland said. "Ninety percent of these cases come down to the fact that the Notary did not do the job correctly or did not have a journal to help with their defense."

Sometimes small mistakes are just that — mistakes no one notices or cares about and which have no consequences, but in the real world, a Notary can't know which mistakes will be harmless and which will result in serious harm to signers, financial institutions and others.

If you follow all the basic requirements of your office, consistently maintain high standards, remain impartial and never cut corners, you'll stay on the right side of the law and hang on to your commission.

Going the extra step might seem unnecessary, but it sure beats prison terms, public censure and a loss of a career.

29 Comments

Add your comment

Roxanne Hollingsworth

17 Dec 2020

The CA notaries were savvy enough to obtain E&O Insurance. Every notary should purchase E&O Insurance. It is very important for us to be careful when dentifying the signers and to require the signer to be present, no matter what.

Jonathan Dallas

17 Dec 2020

This is a very detailed and informative article regarding our notarial duties specifically the number one claim of misconduct which is failing to require signers to be present at the notarization. Thank you.

Chris Parreira

17 Dec 2020

What if the notary was retired and of course their E and O insurance expired and the notary was being sued. Is the notary still covered since he or she had insurance at the time of notarization?

National Notary Association

18 Dec 2020

Hello. The answer would depend on the terms of the Notary's E&O policy.

Cheryl L Swisher, Esq.

17 Dec 2020

Saying no to the obvious violations is true security. Family and friends can be the worse in this regard as well because they may ask you to do something that they are not aware is against the law. Additionally. watch out for notarizing for the elderly. The elderly person may be incompetent and do not have an awareness of what he or she is signing. In that case, it would be a violation to notarize the signature. It is not worth it. When in doubt, use that 2 letter word, No.

Larry Tooson

17 Dec 2020

Staying informed is not an option. I appreciate all the efforts that were put in place before arrived for the betterment of all. including the server, overseer, and recipient.

Sue Belson

21 Dec 2020

Please write an article on how notaries can verify a person’s identity when so many licenses have very outdated pictures on them. Also with everyone wearing masks you can’t even see their faces. Thank you!

Sandra

21 Dec 2020

These case stories are great reminders for new and seasoned notaries. Thank you

Audra Odom

21 Dec 2020

Thanks...very useful and timely information...

Ann Block

21 Dec 2020

My employer has E&O insurance. I am acting on behalf of my employer for all my notary work. Should I also have an individual E&O policy?

National Notary Association

06 Jan 2021

Hello. It's up to each individual Notary to determine what type of insurance coverage you think you need for your duties. For more information about what E&O does and does not cover, please see this article: https://www.nationalnotary.org/notary-bulletin/blog/2020/11/what-notary-errors-omissions-insurance-will-and-wont-cover

Robert Owens

21 Dec 2020

This article proves that as notaries public, we must continue to educate ourselves on new laws and best practices. There is no room for "slackers" in this business. We must consistently perform our duties to the full extent of the law.

Mary Butns

21 Dec 2020

I have come up with a reply if they start badgering me. Look I am old and this is my IRA account, I can go to jail, be fined thosands os dollars and lose my Notary. They are not aware of how many laws we are ruled by. It has only happened a few times in my 50 years of being a Notary Public. But this answer gets them to back off, or I just leave.

Wendy

21 Dec 2020

Thank you for the content provided on this subject. I cringe when notaries are tittering on the lines of illegal. Knowing ones state laws is SO important, this article proves the why...

Margie Miles

21 Dec 2020

Thanks for the warnings!

Dale Greenfeld

21 Dec 2020

I am a notary in Washington state. I get plenty of closings sent by title companies for CA transactions and have never been asked to get a thumbprint. Therefore, confused about your example.

Heather Stave

21 Dec 2020

I actually had an acquaintance try to get me to notarize a document for someone who was in prison. The inmate’s attorney nor the inmate herself knew that this person was trying to act on her behalf (they thought it would be an act of kindness on her behalf). I said no. No way. I was actually shocked that this person thought I could notarize a blank document that the inmate would have to sign in my presence, and without the advice of her attorney!

Joseph DiBenedetto

21 Dec 2020

The most common issue I faced over the last 10 years are signers wanting to show me a photocopy of their license. Most times they were told by title/escrow to have a photocopy ready for the notary to add to the loan package. I just asked for the actual ID's. I have never had an issue with them getting the actual ID out. To me, if they have an issue with getting the actual ID - it is probably fraud.

Mary Shepherd

21 Dec 2020

Excellent articles

Cheryl Kaster

21 Dec 2020

I see reliance on a thumbprint to be vastly overrated IF the notary is not careful to obtain a thumbprint that is ACTUALLY LEGIBLE and capable of being used to actually identify the signer. I have done inked fingerprinting for many years and the Notary MUST know how to take a classifiable touch print or all is for naught. If the print is not classifiable then it is of NO USE to law enforcement. Hawaii does not required thumbprints but if they did and the first print was not legible (if it is a fraud situation the signer would likely not give you a classifiable print) I would insist on taking the touch print again, and again. If I could not obtain a classifiable print from the signer I would refuse to notarize. I would not consider an unclassifiable print as complying with the requirements of the law.

Emmalee Custard

21 Dec 2020

I am a relatively new Notary, but none of these are small mistakes! Notarizing when the signer isn't there. Big mistake. Fraud. Big mistake. Taking a photocopy of an ID. Big mistake. Not getting a thumbprint on Cal. real estate documents. Also a big mistake. These are all basic rules and regulations. Our job is to verify the signer's identity. That did not happen in any of these cases. Having the wrong middle initial on a document would be a small mistake. Putting the wrong time in your log book is a small mistake. I'm dumbfounded.

RH

22 Dec 2020

Thank you for this very important reminder. I will be printing out and hanging up the 3 Important Ways to protect your Notary commission in my office.

Dina

22 Dec 2020

Luckily, I do not have to worry about doing anything career ending. Notaries cannot be idiots and do what we/they took an OATH to do. Honest mistakes happen, get E & O Insurance!

Chantel Lewis

24 Dec 2020

I had a friend just recently call and ask if I could notarize a document for her brother who had an expired license that was more than 5 years old and I told her I couldn't and would have to use 2 credible witnesses and I haven't heard from her about it since! She told me that someone else had already told her no also!

Rosemary Martinez

29 Dec 2020

Thanks!! Very informative!

Larry Adams

31 Dec 2020

I am a retired Notary, and during the six years I held my commission from California, I only had one notarization that was a concern. I was asked to notarize a document for a person in a nursing home. Since the person was on several medications which affected his cognitive ability, I asked to have his doctor present to ensure that he was competent to sign. After talking to the patient and his doctor for about ten minutes I decided that he was mentally competent and proceeded with the notarization.

Sherie Wesley

02 Jan 2021

This is some great information! The examples of situations that may occur have been very helpful. At the end of the day as a Notary, we have to due our due diligence in checking the documents and not feel bad when we choose to decline to notarize certain documents.

.Calvin Guy

05 Jan 2021

These scenarios and precarious predicaments, resonates with me when another notary, conducting and preparing many notarizations asked me to preform some of her requests since her notary had expired. This notary attempted to convince me there was a lucrative pay-out for notarizing many immigrant's documents she had on her desk. As an experienced public safety investigator, my better instincts told me this was an illegal request by the other notary. She could have renewed her notary in time, instead of saying it had expired. I naturally declined her offer. So beware of another notary, seeking your best interest through various ruses with the zeal of receiving much monetary gain; to fall, or enjoin them into temptations to commit malfeasances. A word to the wise is most efficient !

Fahimeh Zomorodian

06 Jan 2021

Thanks for the very useful and detailed information.

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