My husband and I always watch a television show as we have dinner, and our entertainment of choice lately has been old episodes of Law and Order. It’s been fun to see the cast change over the years and see all the different types of covered legal cases. We’ve noticed all the various things that lawyers do, from defending clients to becoming a judge. This led me to think about what else lawyers can do, including the question: can lawyers notarize documents?
In the United States, notary laws vary from state to state. All notarizes must be officially sanctioned by the state before performing notary services. In some states, lawyers are also commissioned as notaries, meaning they can notarize most documents. In other states, only some lawyers choose to become commissioned notaries and cannot notarize documents until their official notary application is approved.
Lawyers who are notaries are referred to as civil-law notaries or notaries-at-law. They can both notarize documents and provide legal advice for their clients. Notaries who have not passed the bar exam are called common-law notaries or lay notaries. They are restricted to notarizing documents only and cannot dispense legal advice.
What Is a Notary?
The primary role of a notary (also referred to as a notary public) is to serve as an impartial witness to the signing of important documents. They must follow specific rules and regulations that vary from state to state. The purpose of having an impartial witness like a notary is to prevent fraud and ensure the person signing a document is who they say they are.
Notarizes verify a person’s identity through personal identification (they know the person signing) or by reviewing a government ID such as a passport or driver’s license. Some states require notarizes to go through specific training or classes before they are authorized to notarize documents, while others only require an application.
Notaries are commissioned on the state level and are only eligible to notarize documents while physically in that state. Some states make exceptions where notarizes can also work in adjacent states without requiring a separate commission. They are considered public officers and must perform any legal acts of notarization that are requested. They can, however, charge a fee for their notarization services.
How Does Notarization Work?
Notaries will follow a rigid set of rules to verify the signer’s identity and record the notarization when performing a notarization. Unless they know the signer directly, they’ll ask to see a government-issued ID to ensure the person signing is who they claim to be.
The notary will also review the document being notarized to determine what type of notarization is appropriate. The notary can refuse to complete the notarization if they believe the signer is falsely representing themselves or the information presented in the document.
Once the notary has completed their review of the identification and the document, they’ll proceed to affix their official stamp or seal to the document. Whether a stamp or seal is used varies from state to state and may also reflect notary preference.
Some documents will have a place to be notarized at the bottom of the document, in which case the notary will stamp or seal that page directly. For documents that don’t include that, the notary will attach a separate page that provides for the document’s written confirmation and the stamp/seal.
Finally, the notary will record the entire process in their formal logbook. This includes marking:
- who requested the notarization
- how they verified that person’s identity
- what kind of notarization they performed
- what was notarized
- the date of notarization
- what, if any, fees were paid
The state can request to review a notary’s logbook at any time, and notaries may even have to testify in court if one of their notarizations is called into question. However, this is very rare, and most notaries perform their work and log their services without external review or scrutiny.
What Are the Different Types of Notarization?
There are three primary types of notarization:
- Certified Copies.
Acknowledgements are where the signer affirms that the signature on a document is their own. They are most often used with property deeds, trusts, and establishing a power of attorney. The notary must verify the signer’s identity and witness the signature process.
Jurats are official written statements by the notary public that confirm the signer has sworn to the truth of a document or statement. These are most commonly used in criminal or civil law cases. Jurats can include verification that an oath was administered and acknowledged or affirmations that a specific statement is true. These statements are considered to be made “under oath” and thus subject to penalties of perjury if a false declaration is made and notarized.
Certified copies focus on certifying that a document has been reproduced accurately and without alteration. It’s important to note that this type of notarization can only be performed on copies of documents and not on official documents themselves. For example, notarizes cannot certify a birth certificate, as that must be done at the state level, but they can notarize that a copy of a birth certificate was made.
What Kinds of Documents Need to Be Notarized?
Most of the work performed by notaries is to witness the signing of official documents. As an impartial witness, they’re confirming that the person signing has been formally identified, that they fully understand the document they’re signing, and that they’re willing to sign that document without coercion.
Many of these documents are about legal contracts such as:
- Loan Documents
- Power of Attorney
Other documents that frequently require notarization are those that include an oath or affirmation, such as:
- Taking a statutory declaration
- Acknowledgment of deeds
- Notice of foreign drafts
Does Notarization Have to Be Done in Person?
For many years, notarization work had to be performed in person with both the signer and the notary present. However, with the advent of secure online transactions, some notarizations can now be completed electronically. Some states still require both parties to be physically present, but others have moved to allow for true remote notarizations. These are often called Remote Online Notarization, or RON, and are performed by an eNotary.
In states where notaries can notarize documents electronically, the notary must use digital security certificates and public key infrastructures to ensure the integrity of the notarized document. This prevents the document from being tampered with after it has been notarized. In these states, the identity verification process still must take place and is typically completed using audio or webcam technology.
During the COVID-19 global pandemic, some states enacted temporary authorizations for electronic notary services to prevent people from gathering in person. Many of these states have since dropped their emergency provisions, and others will end either on a specific date or when the declared “state of emergency” ends in that particular state.
How Does Someone Become a Notary?
Notaries are commissioned at the state level, and in most cases, the notary is only permitted to practice within that state. To become a notary, a person must first apply to the state. There is often an application fee that is also required when the request is submitted. Some states require that prospective notaries take specific training courses or pass a written exam.
Even in states that don’t require training courses, it is often advised that proposed notaries complete some kind of training program. This ensures they fully understand their responsibilities, especially related to the different types of notarizations they may be asked to perform. Training courses also help explain how the notary should use their logbook and an explanation of consequences for failing to notarize correctly.
Once a notary application has been approved, the notary must file their official notary bond and oath. These usually don’t need to be performed in person and can be completed online.
Finally, the newly minted notary must purchase their notarization supplies. They will always need a notary logbook and stamp/seal used for every transaction. A stamp will include the notary’s name, state, and the date on which their notary commission expires.
They can also purchase pre-made forms that can be attached to documents that don’t include a specific spot for notarization. Most notary supply shops will require verification that a person truly is notary public before selling them notary supplies.
A lawyer who wishes to be a commissioned notary must follow this same process to become certified. Once they have their full notary commission, they must record any transactions correctly and are subject to the same levels of oversight as lay notaries.
Are There Restrictions on What Lawyers Can Notarize?
There are some restrictions on what notarizations any notary can confirm, including lawyers. A notary cannot notarize a document in which they are a party, basically meaning they can’t notarize themselves. This holds even if there are additional parties in that transaction.
Notaries cannot perform a notarization if they have a financial or other beneficial interest in the transaction. This rule is essential because the notary must serve as an impartial witness, and they cannot be impartial if they could benefit financially from that transaction.