Notary Services

You might have heard the terms “notary public” and “notarize,” but what do they mean and when would you need one?

What is a notary public?

A notary public is an individual appointed by the state government to serve as an official and impartial third-party witness to the signatures of important documents, like wills and powers of attorney.

A notary public screens signers of these documents to make sure they are who they say they are, and not committing an act of fraud. Plus, a notary public makes sure the signer is not being forced to sign and that the signer knows all the details of the document they’re signing.

When you need to get a document notarized, you’ll have to find a provider — like a bank representative — who has been appointed by their state government to act as a ministerial official as a notary public. You’ll also need to prove your identity with a valid form of identification. Sometimes, a notary will even require the participants to sign the necessary documents under oath, under penalty of perjury.

When do you need a notary public?

Documents that typically require notarization are often of the major life-event variety: wills, powers of attorney, deeds, contracts, and affidavits, to name a few. Requirements vary by state.

Notaries are appointed by a government authority, such as a court, governor or lieutenant governor, or by a regulating body often known as a society or faculty of notaries public. For lawyer notaries, an appointment may be for life, while lay notaries are usually commissioned for a briefer term (often 3 to 5 years in the U.S.), with the possibility of renewal.

In most common law countries, appointments and their number for a given notarial district are highly regulated. However, since the majority of American notaries are lay persons who provide officially required services, commission numbers are not regulated, which is part of the reason why there are far more notaries in the United States than in other countries (4.5 million vs. approx. 740 in England and Wales and approx. 1,250 in Australia and New Zealand). Furthermore, all U.S. and some Canadian notarial functions are applied to domestic affairs and documents, where fully systematized attestations of signatures and acknowledgment of deeds are a universal requirement for document authentication. In the U.S., notaries public do not authenticate documents in a traditional sense: instead, they authenticate that the signature(s) on a document belongs to the person(s) claiming to be the signer(s), thus ensuring trust among interested parties. By contrast, outside North American common law jurisdictions, notarial practice is restricted to international legal matters or where a foreign jurisdiction is involved, and almost all notaries are also qualified lawyers.

For the purposes of authentication, most countries require commercial or personal documents which originate from or are signed in another country to be notarized before they can be used or officially recorded or before they can have any legal effect. To these documents a notary affixes a notarial certificate–a separate document stating the notarial act performed and upon which the party(ies) and notary sign–which attests to the execution of the document, usually by the person who appears before the notary, known as an appearer or constituent (U.S.). In the U.S., many documents include the notarial wording within the document, thus eliminating the need for an additional page for the certificate only (i.e., the document is signed and notarized, including application of the Notary’s seal). In cases where notaries are also lawyers, such a notary may also draft legal instruments known as notarial acts or deeds which have probative value and executory force, as they do in civil law jurisdictions. Originals or secondary originals are then filed and stored in the notary's archives, or protocol. As noted, lay notaries public in the U.S. are forbidden to advise signers as to which type of act suits the signer’s situation: instead, the signer must provide the certificate/wording that is appropriate.

Notaries are generally required to undergo special training in the performance of their duties, often culminating in an examination and ongoing education/re-examination upon commission renewal. Some must also first serve as an apprentice before being commissioned or licensed to practice their profession. In some countries, even licensed lawyers, e.g., barristers or solicitors, must follow a prescribed specialized course of study and be mentored for two years before being allowed to practice as a notary (e.g., British Columbia, England). However, notaries public in the U.S., of which the vast majority are lay people, require only a brief training seminar and are expressly forbidden to engage in any activities that could be construed as the unlicensed practice of law unless they are also qualified attorneys. That said, even lay notaries public must know all applicable laws in their jurisdiction (e.g., state) to practice, and a commission could be revoked for a single deviation from such laws. Notarial practice is universally considered to be distinct and separate from that of an attorney (solicitor/barrister). In England and Wales, there is a course of study for notaries which is conducted under the auspices of the University of Cambridge and the Society of Notaries of England and Wales. In the State of Victoria, Australia, applicants for appointment must first complete a Graduate Diploma of Notarial Practice which is administered by the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre in Victoria University, Melbourne. The United States is a notable exception to these practices: lawyer-notaries need only be approved by their jurisdiction and possibly by a local court or bar association.

In bi-juridical jurisdictions, such as South Africa or Louisiana, the office of notary public is a legal profession with educational requirements similar to those for attorneys. Many even have institutes of higher learning that offer degrees in notarial law. Therefore, despite their name, "notaries public" in these jurisdictions are in effect civil law notaries.

History of Notaries

Since 1957, the National Notary Association (NNA) has helped people across the country become notaries. The nonprofit organization is the national leader in training and education and serves more than 4.4 million members across the United States.

Notaries can be traced back to ancient Egypt when they were known as scribes. The first recognized notary was Tito, a Roman slave during the ancient Roman Empire.

Author Mark Twain was once a notary, while Salvador Dali, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, were the sons of notaries. Coolidge remains the only president to be sworn into office by a notary, his father.

Women were not allowed to be notaries until the 1900s but now outnumber male notaries, according to the NNA.

Examples of a Notary

Rose has just purchased an apartment and contacts a notary to finalize the sale. The notary prepares the deed of sale and declaration of ownership and finalizes the documents required for the transaction.