What is a Notary Public?
A Notary Public is an official of integrity appointed by state government — typically by the secretary of state — to serve the public as an impartial witness in performing a variety of official fraud-deterrent acts related to the signing of important documents. These official acts are called notarizations, or notarial acts. Notaries are publicly commissioned as "ministerial" officials, meaning that they are expected to follow written rules without the exercise of significant personal discretion, as would otherwise be the case with a "judicial" official.
What does a Notary do?
A Notary's duty is to screen the signers of important documents for their true identity, their willingness to sign without duress or intimidation, and their awareness of the contents of the document or transaction. Some notarizations also require the Notary to put the signer under an oath, declaring under penalty of perjury that the information contained in a document is true and correct. Property deeds, wills and powers of attorney are examples of documents that commonly require a Notary.
Impartiality is the foundation of the Notary's public trust. They are duty-bound not to act in situations where they have a personal interest. The public trusts that the Notary's screening tasks have not been corrupted by self-interest. And impartiality dictates that a Notary never refuse to serve a person due to race, nationality, religion, politics, sexual orientation or status as a non-customer.
As official representatives of the state, Notaries Public certify the proper execution of many of the life-changing documents of private citizens — whether those diverse transactions convey real estate, grant powers of attorney, establish a prenuptial agreement, or perform the multitude of other activities that enable our civil society to function.
Why are Notaries and notarizations necessary?
Through the process of notarization, Notaries deter fraud and establish that the signer knows what document they're signing and that they're a willing participant in the transaction.
How does a Notary identify a signer?
Generally, a Notary will ask to see a current ID that has a photo, physical description and signature. Acceptable IDs usually include a driver's license or passport.
What a Notary is Not
Unlike Notaries in foreign countries, a U.S. Notary Public is not an attorney, judge or high-ranking official. A U.S. Notary is not the same as a Notario Publico and these differences can be confusing for immigrants when they approach Notaries in this country. Notaries in the United States should be very clear about what they can or cannot do to serve immigrants the right way and steer clear of notario issues.
What is Notarization?
Notarization is the official fraud-deterrent process that assures the parties of a transaction that a document is authentic, and can be trusted. It is a three-part process, performed by a Notary Public, that includes of vetting, certifying and record-keeping. Notarizations are sometimes referred to as "notarial acts."
Above all, notarization is the assurance by a duly appointed and impartial Notary Public that a document is authentic, that its signature is genuine, and that its signer acted without duress or intimidation, and intended the terms of the document to be in full force and effect.
The central value of notarization lies in the Notary's impartial screening of a signer for identity, willingness and awareness. This screening detects and deters document fraud, and helps protect the personal rights and property of private citizens from forgers, identity thieves and exploiters of the vulnerable. Every day the process of notarization prevents countless forged, coerced and incompetent signings that would otherwise overwhelm our court system and dissolve the network of trust allowing our civil society to function.
The Different Notarial Acts
An acknowledgment is typically performed on documents controlling or conveying ownership of valuable assets. Such documents include real property deeds, powers of attorney and trusts. For an acknowledgment, the signer must appear in person at the time of notarization to be positively identified and to declare ("acknowledge") that the signature on the document is his or her own, that it was willingly made and that the provisions in the document are intended to take effect exactly as written.
A jurat is typically performed on evidentiary documents that are critical to the operation of our civil and criminal justice system. Such documents include affidavits, depositions and interrogatories. For a jurat, the signer must appear in person at the time of notarization to sign the document and to speak aloud an oath or affirmation promising that the statements in the document are true. (An oath is a solemn pledge to a Supreme Being; an affirmation is an equally solemn pledge on one's personal honor.) A person who takes an oath or affirmation in connection with an official proceeding may be prosecuted for perjury should he or she fail to be truthful.
A copy certification is performed to confirm that a reproduction of an original document is true, exact and complete. Such originals might include college degrees, passports and other important one-and-only personal papers which cannot be copy-certified by a public record office such as a bureau of vital statistics and which the holder must submit for some purpose but does not want to part with for fear of loss. This type of notarization is not an authorized notarial act in every state, and in the jurisdictions where it is authorized, may be executed only with certain kinds of the original document.
Each state and U.S. territorial jurisdiction adopts its own laws governing the performance of notarial acts. While these different notarial laws are largely congruent when it comes to the most common notarizations, namely acknowledgments and jurats, there are unusual laws in a number of states. In the state of Washington, for example, certification of the occurrence of an act or event is an authorized notarization. And in Maine, Florida and South Carolina, performing a marriage rite is an allowed notarial act.
The Parts of a Notarization
The Notary's screening of the signer for identity, volition and awareness is the first part of a notarization.
The second part is entering key details of the notarization in the Notary's "journal of notarial acts." Keeping such a chronological journal is a widely endorsed best practice, if not a requirement of law. Some states even require document signers to leave a signature and a thumbprint in the Notary's journal.
The third part is completing a "notarial certificate" that states exactly what facts are being certified by the Notary in the notarization. Affixation of the Notary's signature and seal of office on the certificate climaxes the notarization. The seal is the universally recognized symbol of the Notary office. Its presence gives a notarized document considerable weight in legal matters and renders it genuine on its face (i.e., prima facie evidence) in a court of law.
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