Updated 4-25-17. It’s easy to make a mistake when notarizing that can lead to lawsuits. However, following the recommended practices below greatly reduces your chances of getting yourself in legal trouble.
1. Always Require Personal Appearance
Before you can notarize someone’s signature, the signer must personally appear before you. Almost every state defines that as face-to-face, in the same room. That’s the only way you can verify that your signers are who they say they are, signing of their own free will and fully aware of what’s happening.
[Note: Virginia and Montana allow the personal appearance requirement to be satisfied remotely with an audio-video conference over the internet.]
Newer Notaries are often tripped up by this requirement, especially when a signer asks them to make ‘just one exception’. But you need to stick to your guns. Be pleasant and straightforward when you tell your client that all signers must appear in the flesh, at the time of the notarization, and not before or after — but be firm.
2. Master Identification Requirements
Most states provide guidelines on what constitutes acceptable ID from a signer, so make sure you’re familiar with them. Check your official Notary handbook, if your state publishes one. NNA members also can check the online U.S. Notary Reference Manual.
Once you’re clear on which IDs you may accept, always be careful during notarizations to confirm the information on the ID matches your signer’s description — such as eye color and height. And be alert for any discrepancies. Take your time. The NNA Hotline is available to help with any questions.
3. Avoid Pressure to ‘Rush’
Even experienced Notaries can get rattled when asked to notarize a large number of signatures by a signer or employer who’s stressed and in a hurry. But when you rush, it’s easy to miss a basic step that can invalidate the notarization and even lead to legal or financial consequences later on.
“Make sure you do not allow signers to hurry you at any point,” advises Arizona NSA Kathy Fletcher, the NNA 2013 Notary of the Year. “As a Notary you must be in control. I always check each document after each page is signed and once again before I leave the signer’s location. This universally decreases errors.”
4. Scan And Complete The Certificate Properly
When completing the certificate, make sure all the details are correct. You also should scan the document in order to:
- Check for blank spaces. Some states mandate there are no blanks on a document and other states just strongly recommend it.
- Note any details (such as the document title) that your state requires recording in your journal entry.
Scanning the document does not mean reading it for details. Just glance over it sufficiently to get the information you need.
5. Know How To Handle ‘Emotional’ Signers
Many notarizations can involve stressful situations, especially if the documents involve major financial transactions for your signers — such as deeds, mortgages, trusts and powers of attorney. Any little glitch or speed bump can make signers upset.
“We get a lot of Hotline calls about the elderly parent who suddenly becomes catastrophically ill, and there’s no power of attorney in place,” says Patti Wulfestieg, the NNA’s Manager, Hotline and Compliance. “The grown children are usually desperate to get the paperwork notarized before it’s too late.”
While that’s understandable, if the parent is not aware or able to communicate clearly, you have no choice but to refuse to complete the notarization. Some may become upset and frustrated by your refusal. “Some even may become belligerent,” Wulfestieg says.
“When I get rude or anxious clients, I immediately put a calming strategy in place,” says Laura Biewer, an NNA seminar instructor and a traveling Notary. Among her tips:
- Slow down and allow several minutes for settling in and getting everyone comfortable.
- Listen more than you think you need to, make eye contact and smile often.
- Acknowledge your client’s emotions by saying something like, “I understand how this makes you feel.” Be extra sensitive to the stresses that they may be experiencing.
Paying close attention to your signer and communicating calmly and openly about any confusion can allay anxieties and ensure a successful and pleasant appointment.