Basic Notarial Duties

Following are descriptions of the most common notarial duties. While ALL states allow their notaries to perform oaths/affirmations and acknowledgments, whether or not a notary may perform any other duties varies by state, depending on each state’s unique notary laws. Notaries are expected to know and honor what their state laws allow them to do. Go to "Notary Information by State" on this website, select your state, and review “Authorized Duties.”

IMPORTANT: The “golden rule” of every notarial act, whether it is paper-based or electronic, is the physical presence of the signer before the notary.  A notary’s ability to fully evaluate a document signer’s identification, basic understanding of the transaction and free will would be diminished by any condition other than physical presence of the signer. No alternative, such as an audio/video connection, can provide the notary with full sensory experience that physical, personal presence allows.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

Some document transactions require that the signer make a formal declaration before a notary, thereby “acknowledging” execution (signing) of the document. Specifically, the signer verbally acknowledges that:
    
       The signer understands the contents and purpose of the document;
       The signature is his/her own
       The document was signed willingly (no coercion)

Documents typically requiring an acknowledgment are contracts, deeds, agreements, powers of attorney, etc. These documents contain terms to which the signer is agreeing.

Documents requiring acknowledgment can be signed earlier than or at the time of notarization. Either way, the signature must clearly be an original one, stroked directly onto the paper with “wet” ink (ballpoint, rollerball, etc.).

If the document presented to the notary is unsigned, the notary should have the signer sign the document prior to administering the verbal ceremony (see below).

Having ensured that all the required elements for lawful notarization are present (see bullets below), the notary will verbally ask the signer the following or similar:

“Do you acknowledge or declare that you understand this document and have signed it voluntarily for the purposes stated in it?”

The signer will reply “Yes.” The notary will then complete the notarial act by filling out his/her notarial certificate, then signing and sealing the certificate.

OATH/AFFIRMATION

Other document transactions require that the signer swear an oath or affirm to a notary, under penalty of perjury, that the contents of a document are true.

Oaths and affirmations differ, but have the same legal effect. When taking an oath, a person swears a pledge and invokes a Supreme Being (“I swear this is the truth, so help me God”). Persons who do not wish to invoke a Supreme Being in their pledge may make an affirmation (“I affirm this is the truth”).

Documents typically requiring an oath include written affidavits and applications—documents for which the signer/affiant has supplied a set of facts.

Documents requiring an oath or affirmation MUST be signed in the presence of the notary. This is dictated by the customary language of the jurat (notarial certificate for an oath/affirmation); for example, “Subscribed [signed] and sworn-to/affirmed before me this (date) day of (month), (year).”

The signer will be directed by the notary to sign the document prior to the verbal ceremony (see below).

If a document presented for an oath/affirmation has already been signed, the notary must require the signer to sign the document again, in the notary’s presence. A notation may be made, “Duplicate signature at notary’s request.”

Having ensured that all the required elements for lawful notarization are present (see bullets below), the notary will verbally ask the signer the following or similar:

(For an Oath)
“Do you swear under the penalties of perjury, that the information contained in this document is the truth, so help you God?”

(For an Affirmation)
“Do you affirm under the penalties of perjury, that the information contained in this document is the truth?”

The signer will reply “Yes.” The notary will then complete the notarial act by filling out the jurat (his/her notarial certificate), then signing and sealing the jurat.

SIGNATURE WITNESSING

Sometimes a notary is asked to simply witness an individual’s signing of an instrument (document) that requires neither an acknowledgment nor an oath/affirmation. States that allow a notary to witness signatures will specify so in their notary statutes.

For signature witnessing, a document signer will personally appear before a notary and will present the document to be signed. The notary will positively establish the identity of the signer through personal knowledge of the signer, or by examining satisfactory evidence of identification. The notary will next witness the signer signing the document, and will complete the appropriate notarial certificate. There is no verbal ceremony for this notarial act.

COPY CERTIFICATION

Some states allow their notaries to make or witness the making of a photocopy of an original document. The notary’s signed and sealed certificate, attached to the photocopy, attests to the genuineness of the photocopy.

The document to be copied must be an original document. It cannot be a copy itself. 

Notaries are prohibited from certifying copies of documents whose true originals are vital or public records. These would include birth certificates, death certificates and marriage certificates. The originals of these documents reside with governmental entities such as county clerks or the state division of vital statistics. Only the governmental entity that holds the original public or vital record may produce certified copies.

REQUIRED ELEMENTS FOR A LAWFUL NOTARIZATION
 
In order to complete the notarial acts described above, notaries must first confirm that the following elements are present. If any of these elements are missing the notary cannot proceed:

The document signer must be PHYSICALLY PRESENT before the notary. 
An essential element of the notarial act is personal, face-to-face communication between the document signer and the notary. This is necessary for the notary to assess the signer’s comprehension of the transaction and willingness to sign, to help ensure that neither coercion nor fraud are present, and to administer the required verbal ceremony. Physical presence of the signer is so important that notaries who fail to require it can be charged with a crime and punished.

The signer must be PERSONALLY KNOWN to the notary or must produce SATISFACTORY EVIDENCE OF IDENTIFICATION.
One of the notary’s main responsibilities is to determine, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the person who has come for a notarial act is the same person named in the document as the signer. The signer must either be personally known to the notary (regular interaction over time has given the notary a deep-seated belief in the person’s identity); or the signer must present satisfactory evidence of identification, such as a state-issued driver’s license. The documents that a notary may accept as satisfactory evidence of identification vary by state but all states allow a current driver’s license. Some states also allow use of one or two credible witnesses to vouch for the identify of a signer, subject to the credible witness(es) ability to truthfully swear to a series of statements about the signer. *(At this writing, California prohibits relying solely on personal knowledge – satisfactory evidence of identification must always be presented.)

The notary must be presented with an ORIGINAL document.
An original document is one that is unsigned, or that was/is physically signed in “wet ink” by the document signer. For example, an unsigned document may be faxed and subsequently signed by the document signer. That faxed document, with its original wet-ink signature, is an original document. A document that was previously signed, then faxed, is NOT an original document. It displays a facsimile signature, not a signature stroked directly onto the paper in wet ink.

Remember that documents requiring an acknowledgment may already bear the signer’s signature at the time of notarization, but the signature must clearly be the signer’s “wet ink” signature. Documents requiring an oath must be signed in the notary’s presence.
  
The document presented for notarization must be COMPLETE. 
The notary cannot perform a notarial act over a document that is missing pages, or that contains blanks that should be filled-in prior to the notarial act. If missing pages cannot be presented to the notary, or if the signer does not know how to deal with the blanks in the document, the notary cannot proceed. (Note: some blanks are clearly intended to be filled-in later, such as “Office Use Only” blanks. These are acceptable at the time of notarization.)
  
The DOCUMENT DATE must be the same day as the notarization or earlier, but NEVER later than the day of notarization.
When the document to be notarized is a dated one, then it must be dated the same day as notarization or earlier. The purpose of notarization is so the formalities of document execution are conducted before a notary. (Execute:  to perform what is necessary to give validity to something, for example execute a deed.) The notary then records the facts of the document execution in his/her notarial certificate (the part of the document that the notary signs and seals). Notarization is the final step in document execution, so it cannot occur before the document’s date. It is possible for a signer to present an undated document for notarization; i.e., a document that does not require a date or display a blank for a date to be filled-in. If the signer does not wish to date the document, the notary may proceed with notarization, but should carefully note in his/her recordbook that the notarial act was performed on an undated document.

   
The document must display NOTARIAL LANGUAGE that clearly indicates the desired notarial act. 
This is the notary’s primary means of determining the required notarial act. Look at the notarial certificate. Check the format. Does it comply with your state law? You also want to look for the key words, sworn (or affirmed) or acknowledged. These words tell you which notarial act is required - whether you have to administer an oath (or affirmation) or take an acknowledgment. If the document signer insists on a notarial act but no act is clearly indicated on the document, the signer or other party involved with the document must choose the notarial act. The notary can explain the differences between the various acts, but cannot choose the act or he/she risks practicing law without a license.
  
  
The notary must feel assured that THE SIGNER COMPREHENDS the underlying transaction and is PROCEEDING WILLINGLY.
Notaries provide an invaluable service by assessing a signer’s comprehension and willingness. It is not uncommon for signers to execute a document under duress or coercion. Sometimes signers don’t really understand why they are executing a document. It’s up to the notary to recognize when a signer suffers from coercion, misgivings or inability to understand the transaction, and to stop the notarial act if necessary.
  
The notary must/should complete a recordbook entry.
Many states require the notary to keep a recordbook (also called a notary journal) of all notarial acts. States that do not require a notary to keep a record of his or her notarial acts strongly recommend that the notary keep a recordbook.

Keeping a notary recordbook is for your own protection and for the protection of the public and your employer. The recordbook entry should contain information about the signer including his or her original signature, the title and date of the document, the notarial act performed, the method of identifying the signer, and any unusual circumstances associated with the notarization.

The verbal ceremony must be performed.
Here's the essence of the notarization. In the case of a document requiring an acknowledgment, the verbal ceremony is the question that officially determines the client’s understanding of the document and willingness to sign the document. In the case of a document requiring an oath or affirmation, the verbal ceremony is the official question that causes the client to swear or affirm that the information in the document is the truth. It is called a “verbal” ceremony because the question must be asked aloud by the notary and the client must make a verbal response that the notary can clearly hear.

A completed notarial certificate is required.
This certificate is the notarial wording or language which records and describes the events of the process of performing the notarial act. The wording may be printed on the document following the signer's signature, or it may be on a separate attached form, known as a "loose notarial certificate." Without a completed notarial certificate, the notarization is incomplete and may be open to legal challenge.

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