What is a notary public?
Trust us, you’re not the first to ask that. There’s a reason why Notary Publics are becoming a lucrative “side hustle” for entrepreneurs with a legal background.
Now more than ever, people need notaries to do the duties that everyday citizens can’t perform — without having to pay expensive lawyer fees.
Figures vary by states, but Notary Publics are often the largest group of public officials. There are currently 95,000 Notary Publics operational across the State of Indiana, for example. And the national growth of notaries has been fairly consistent, save a stretch in the late 2000s.
And the national growth of notaries has been fairly consistent, save a stretch in the late 2000s.
The high number of notary officials says something about the needs of citizens across the United States: There are many significant life milestones, decisions, and ventures that you can’t complete without a notary signing off on them first.
If you think this sounds a lot like something an attorney would do, think again: Notary Publics are not lawyers.
They can’t give legal advice, nor can they prepare legal documents, and there are only a handful of tasks they are allowed to perform. However, these tasks are crucial to certain functions of the Secretary of State’s office.
Besides certifying documents, administering oaths, or taking affidavits, the position of the Notary Public holds historical integrity. There’s a level of trust, transparency, and due diligence that comes with the office holder’s primary duties.
If you’ve ever wondered what, precisely, a Notary Public official can help you with, use this guide to get the full picture.
What Do Notary Publics Do?
In the United States, the precise details of a notary official vary from state to state. Some requirements are mandatory in one state but optional in others.
The office of the Notary Public is also fulfilled by a person who is appointed by the state’s government. It’s usually the Secretary of State’s office, but in some states like Utah, this could be the Lieutenant Governor’s office.
Notary Publics are responsible for three to four broad duties. Each state issues the notary official with a handbook that outlines the details of these duties and guidelines on legal, ethical execution. The requirements of the handbook are best practices though. If there’s ever a dispute, official statutes will make or break the ruling — not the handbook.
Notaries take office through a very specific process. They’re intended to be impartial witnesses when signing documents, taking acknowledgments, and affirming the truth of information within a document.
“A notary is a verifier, authenticator, person of integrity appointed to the office, person commission to seal documents, impartial agent for the state, public recorder of acts, public servant.” — Colorado Secretary of State Handbook
There are limits and exceptions to these general duties, as each state’s requirements for Notary Publics vary. In some jurisdictions, they may be able to:
- Take depositions
- Certify any petitions
- Witness third-party absentee ballots
- Provide marriage licenses
- Solemnize civil marriages
- Witness the opening of a safe deposit box and draft an official inventory of its contents
- Draft protests of dishonored checks and promissory notes
Depositions are especially important. It’s why so many US court reporters are also notary publics — their position requires them to swear in depositions. Additionally, some individuals within a financial firm may also be notary officials.
The Responsibilities of a Notary Public
When a Notary Public comes into office, they are “commissioned.” When commissioned as an agent of the Secretary of State, Notary Publics can:
- Administer oaths and affirmations
- Take affidavits and depositions
- Receive and certify acknowledgments or proof of written instruments like deeds, mortgages, powers of attorney, etc.
- Demand and accept payment of foreign and inland bills of exchange, promissory notes and obligations in writing, and protesting the same for non-payment
These functions are not the same for all states, though. Some notaries only have two of the four powers in their home state, while others have all four. If you’re curious about your state, click here to find a notary near you.
But to do any of these acts effectively, notary publics must keep up with changing statutes in notary law. That’s why so many notary officials decide to take further training and courses in Notary Law — both before and after their commission.
For example, in the State of Washington, the Department of Licensing provides video training on its website. And in the State of New York, aspiring Notary Publics must also sit and pass a notary public exam along with the standard application, application fee, and surety bond.
Once commissioned, notaries usually go on to practice for four years before their commission expires — at which point, they can choose to renew.
Each of these notarial acts has procedures, and the language on the certificate that’s attached to the documentation varies, based on the act performed. Let’s look briefly at the different responsibilities and what they mean for both notaries and the average citizen.
Oaths And Affirmations
Oaths and affirmations are better known as “jurats,” a short form for the Latin statement, “It has been sworn.”
Technically, an affirmation is a form of an oath. Oaths are vows, promises, pledges, or solemn declarations. An affirmation is the same but does not include the word “swear” — instead, the statement usually sounds like, “I affirm under penalty of perjury,” rather than, “I solemnly swear…so help me God.”
The invocation of a deity is a standard inclusion of oaths.
A notarial act for oaths and affirmations is a three-part process that includes:
- Hearing the client affirm or swear to the document, to his/her identity, and/or any other facts about themselves that the document requires
- See the client sign the document
- Complete the notarial certificate
The most important part is that the signer or client must be present in front of the Notary Public official.
Here is an example of an oath and affidavit:
An oath, as explained above, is an affirmation that supporting an act or statement to be truthful or honest. A sample of an oath is outlined below as follows.
Notary Public’s Oath of Office State of ___________________ ) )SS: County of ___________ )I, ___________, having been duly appointed and commissioned a Notary Public in and for the State of ___________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this State and that I will discharge the duties of my office with fidelity.
Affidavits are statements individuals make out of their own free will. Presented in writing, it is mandatory that the individual making the statement specifies his/her name along with the signature. It is also important to carry out this proceeding in the presence of notary agent.
State of ________________ ) )SS: County of _______________ )Before me, the undersigned notary public, this day, personally, appeared______________ to me known, who being duly sworn according to law, deposes the following:(Affiant’s Statement)___________________________(Signature of Affiant)Subscribed and sworn to before me this __________ day of_______________, 20___.___________________________Notary PublicMy Commission Expires: _____________________
It’s never the job of a Notary Public to swear or affirm as to the client’s or signer’s state of mind or legal capacity. A statement like, “In my opinion, the person before me is signing under his own free will,” is an unauthorized practice of law.
Besides the act itself, language matters deeply to the integrity and performance of the Notary Public. The notarial act for an acknowledgment is part of closings or other real estate transactions.
Instead of the words, “subscribed and sworn to,” the act of acknowledgment will involve a statement with the words, “acknowledged before me.” The notarial certificate will also have the word “acknowledge” somewhere on it.
Acknowledgments call for special attention to the signer’s identity. Because the signer or client is not taking an oath about the veracity of his or her identity, the Notary Public needs to verify this through satisfactory evidence:
- State or federal government issued ID with a photo and signature
- A sworn credible introduction of the client given under oath by a person the notary knows
- Personal and direct knowledge of the client
For some documents, the notary official also needs to make sure the signer is of sound mind or is truly capable of understanding and signing the document. The signer needs to attest to this fact.
However, it’s not the job of a notary public to draw any legal conclusions or to further research this claim.
If the notary agent sees that the signer is drunk, drugged, or, for any other reason, incapable of making this attestation with full presence, they can stop the notarial act and refuse to go further. But if they try to do anything beyond that, they’re exceeding their responsibilities.
It’s also essential to double-check that the client is not under duress because acknowledgments must be voluntary. They are “free will acts and deeds” of the client or signer.
Once they take the acknowledgment, the Notary Public completes the right notarial certificate.
Technically, witnessing a signature falls under an acknowledgment, but it’s also considered a separate act — which is why it comes with a short-form certificate.
Signature witnessing is when a client signs the document in front of the notary official. During an acknowledgment, the signer has already made their mark on the document.
The procedure for the notarial act remains the same, but the notary official needs to check a government-issued ID to ensure that the signature on the ID matches the signature on the documentation.
They can also have the client sign the journal while the notary watches and use this “in presence” signature to verify the two are the same.
The fourth primary function a notary performs is copy certification.
Copy certification requires the Notary Public to attest to the fact that a copy or facsimile of a document is the same in content as the original. In some cases, Notary Publics can also make certified copies of original documents.
Why does this duty matter? When a Notary Public has the power to certify copies and does so, that copy is authentic for official matters. This allows the preservation of sensitive original documents.
Examples of copy certifications include:
- Employment issues: certifying diplomas, awards and honors, ratings
- Business affairs: licenses and permits, powers of attorney, contracts, and agreements
- Adoptions: home studies, financial statements, health assessments
- International travel: certifying copies of passports, drivers’ licenses, and other backups of original and official documentation
Once the notary verifies the client’s identity, the notarial act for copy certification goes through a standard procedure that includes:
- Seeing the original document
- Creating a special written request for the certified copy (to be kept by the notary), including two statements, signed by the client
- Have two copies of the original document — one for certification and one for the notary to keep as part of paper records
- Go through the actual verification process: ensuring that copies are “full, true, and exact facsimiles” of the originals. In this case, a notary is responsible for the accuracy.
- Complete the certification act by using the certification form
There are some kinds of documents that cannot be certified by Notary Publics — and that’s because the issuing institution will certify copies themselves. Marriage licenses or birth certificates are common examples.
How A Notarial Act Is Performed
The notarial act is a multi-step process where the notary agent is on the lookout for details about identity, veracity, authenticity, and capability. Each of these acts has a repetitive structure. The “challenge,” for a Notary Public official is in the details and specific circumstances of each client.
You’ll notice that the structure largely remains the same for each act, and always ends in the completion of a short-form certificate that closes the act.
This is often accompanied by the Notarial seal or stamp, which bears the details of the Notary Public’s commission (name and commission number), date of expiry, and location (State).
Regardless of the type of duty, the act usually includes the following parts:
The individual client or signer must appear in front of the notary agent — even in online notarizations. Physical presence is the standard.
ID verification of the signer
Before any signing or acknowledging can occur, the notary agent must verify the individual’s identity through a government-issued photo ID or personal knowledge.
They can also be ID’ed by a “credible witness” — with the caveat that this credible witness must be known personally to the notary official. In other words, you can’t have a situation where both the individual and the witness are strangers to the notary official.
Examine the document
If it’s a copy certification, the Notary Public is going to put the document through a more thorough examination where they parse it for content and ensure the two are exactly alike — word for word.
For all other acts, they don’t need to worry about content. They only need to make sure that all parts are filled out appropriately and that no signatures are missing.
Entering the transaction into a record book
Not all notaries are required by their state to keep a journal or record book for notarial acts and transactions. Roughly a third make it mandatory.
For the rest, journals are optional — but they’re highly tactical. Notary agents should keep records of notarial events, even if only to protect themselves.
There have been many cases in which records have saved a notary official from paying heavy fines or being prosecuted when their work came into question. The journal entry proved their innocence.
Complete the notarial certificate or form
The appropriate notarial certificate or short form needs to be attached to the document. Besides the signer’s information, the notarial agent will also need to include details on the date and location of the notarial act, and a signature that matches their commission.
Pricing For A Notary
Notary prices and fees are set partially by the state and in part by the notary official.
Every state has its thresholds on acceptable fees to charge. Notaries can decide where they’d like to set their particular fees. Usually, newer commissions with less experience in the field will set rates at a lower end.
Standard notary charges run, anywhere from $2 to $20. However, the type of service matters as well — a notarization on a mortgage closing might be more expensive.
Mobile notaries are a popular means for individuals looking to access notaries. The convenience for clients/signers is the obvious fact that notaries come to them, regardless of day or time.
This added effort on the notary’s part means they can also charge for making a trip to your location. Clients find the cost reasonable when compared to the struggle of searching for and then going to a stationary notary.
Keep in mind that the notary does not read through the documentation or verify the contents of a contract. They are only responsible for the notarial act. Their impartiality means they can’t make any judgment about the fairness or legality of a document.
Notary Publics offer vital services, and they’re often the last step in making things official. In fact, they’re so crucial that many states are trying to find ways to commission even more notaries in the years to come.
It’s no mistake that when a country’s economy thrives, the business of notaries does as well. Think about the most common functions of a notary — presiding over real estate closings, financial deals, and business documentation — and you’ll understand why that’s the case.
If you think you may take the leap and become a notary public, then hopefully this guide has given you all the information you need to make the decision. The world needs more notaries!