Most notarization requests are straight forward and within the law. But every so often you may be asked to do something that does not seem quite right. There might be an issue with the signer or the document.
While you should comply with any lawful notarization request, knowing when you can — and cannot — say no can be tricky.
When To Refuse A Notarization
Many states have specific laws or regulations, often published by the Secretary of State’s office or other Notary commissioning agency, which explain when a Notary is required to refuse service.
You can generally refer to your state’s Notary website, Notary handbook, or the NNA’s Notary primer for the requirements you need to follow. Outlined below are some of the main reasons you might be required to refuse a notarization. Keep in mind that not all apply to Notaries in every state.
1. Signer Disqualifications
You must refuse to notarize if the signer does not meet certain qualifications for the notarization. These may include:
- The signer is not physically present
- The signer cannot be properly identified
- The signer does not speak the same language as the Notary
- The signer is unwilling to swear or affirm the contents of the document for notarizations that require an oath or affirmation
- You have reason to believe the signer appears to be confused, disoriented, or lacks the mental capacity to sign documents
- You have reason to believe that the signer is being coerced to sign, rather than signing of his or her own free will
2. Document Disqualifications
You must refuse the notarization if the document doesn’t meet certain requirements. Situations may include:
- The document contains blank spaces or missing pages
- The document does not contain a notarial certificate, and the signer cannot or will not instruct the Notary which type of notarial certificate is required
- The document is of a type that may not be copy certified by a Notary (for example, birth certificates or other vital records)
3. Notary Disqualifications
You must refuse to notarize if the notarization presents a conflict of interest that impairs the Notary’s impartiality. These may include:
- The signer is your spouse, parent or child
- You are named as a party to the underlying transaction or have a financial or beneficial interest in the transaction
- You are a signer of the document
4. Other Disqualifying Situations
- You know or suspect the transaction is false, illegal or deceptive
- The act being requested is not an authorized notarial act
- The signer is unable or unwilling to pay the required fee
- The request is made outside of your regular office hours
- The request violates your workplace guidelines
When You Shouldn’t Say ‘No’
Generally, if a requested notarial act is lawful, the Notary should not refuse to perform it. Scenarios that may be difficult for a Notary to refuse are the following:
1. Refusals Based On Personal Bias Or Beliefs
- Signer Bias: As a public servant, you should not refuse a notarization based on personal feelings you may have about the signer’s nationality, religion, race, age, lifestyle, gender or disabilities.
- Controversial Documents: Notaries may be called upon to notarize documents that contain controversial content, such as same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, use of medical marijuana, or abortion. Article I-A-3 of The Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility states that a Notary should not refuse to perform a lawful and proper notarial act “because of disagreement with the statements or purpose of a lawful document.” Even if a document violates your personal principles or beliefs, this is not reason enough to refuse a notarization. Remember: Notarizing a document does not mean you are personally endorsing or agreeing with the contents of the documents; you are simply acting as an impartial, third party witness and verifying the identity of the person signing the document(s).
2. Scenarios That Do Not Violate State Notary Law
It’s important to remember the difference between a legal requirement and best practice. For example, when it comes to taking signer’s thumbprints, you must not refuse a notarization based solely on the signer’s refusal to leave a thumbprint — unless you are commissioned in a state that requires collecting journal thumbprints for certain transactions (namely, California and Illinois, for certain real property transactions).
The same would apply to signers who are opposed to signing a journal in a state where a journal signature is not required.
Tips For Refusing A Notarization
Refusing a notarization may result in a confrontation with an upset signer, who may feel inconvenienced, or, in the worst case scenario, accuse you of unlawful discrimination. Remain calm and follow these best practices:
- Be Tactful: Speak to clients in a calm, respectful manner. Always maintain your professionalism, and avoid getting drawn into a debate with the signer regarding the refusal.
- Explain Yourself: Offer a clear explanation of how the improper action being requested violates the law, and that proceeding with the notarization may not only get the signer in trouble, but it can also cost you your Notary commission and payment of hefty penalty fees.
- Document The Refusal: Document the refusal in your notarial journal, detailing the exact reason for the refusal, should it be questioned down the line.
Kelle Clarke is a regular contributor to the National Notary Association.