One of the most important aspects of a Notary’s duties is serving as an impartial witness to document signings. But what does impartiality require of you? Here are some guidelines to help explain when you need to stay unbiased, and why.
Avoiding Discrimination Against Document Signers
Notaries are public officials in most states. When you are commissioned as a Notary, that means that you have accepted a duty to provide services when someone makes a reasonable and lawful request for a notarization.
You should not refuse a notarization over matters that amount to discrimination. Standard I-A-3 of The Notary Public Code Of Professional Responsibility states, “The Notary shall not refuse to perform a lawful and proper notarial act because of the signer’s race, nationality, ethnicity, citizenship, religion, politics, lifestyle, age, disability, gender or sexual orientation, or because of disagreement with the statements or purpose of a lawful document.” For example, it is not appropriate to refuse a lawful notarization request because the signer belongs to a political party you disagree with.
In addition, some Notaries have said that they would refuse to notarize a document they personally found objectionable. As the Code states above, disagreeing with a document’s content is not sufficient justification to refuse to serve someone. It’s important to remember that notarizing a document does not mean that you endorse or support the contents of the document. Notarization simply assures that the signature on a document is authentic and can be trusted.
Inappropriate Interest In A Document
Obviously, you are going to have problems staying impartial if you are involved in a transaction, or the document provides you with some kind of financial or other material benefit. For example, let’s say you were asked to notarize a friend’s signature on a document gifting a new car to you. If the friend were unable to appear before you, you might be tempted to ignore the law and improperly notarize the document to make sure you get the new car.
This is why many U.S. jurisdictions have laws prohibiting Notaries from notarizing if they have an interest in or benefit from the document, or if the signer is closely related to the Notary. Here are some examples:
Florida prohibits notarizing if the Notary has a financial interest in a document, is a party to the transaction the document relates to, or if the signer is the Notary’s child, spouse or parent (though Florida Notaries are allowed to officiate weddings for family members). However, Notaries may notarize a signature for an employer as the Notary does not receive a benefit other than their normal salary or Notary fee. Florida attorneys who hold a Notary commission are permitted to notarize documents for clients as long as they have no interest in the document other than a standard legal or Notary fee.
California Notaries may not perform a notarial act if they have a direct financial or beneficial interest in a transaction or are named in a transaction. However, a California Notary is permitted to notarize in a real estate transaction when acting as an agent, employee, insurer, attorney, escrow officer, or lender for a signer with a direct financial or beneficial interest in the transaction.
Pennsylvania prohibits notarizing if the Notary is a direct party to a transaction, has a financial interest in the transaction, or would receive a fee that is not contingent upon completing the notarized transaction.
Nevada law does not allow notarizing when a Notary is a party to a document or would receive a benefit from a document that exceeds the state’s maximum allowed notarization fee. Nevada also has extensive prohibitions against notarizing for relatives, forbidding notarization for a Notary’s spouse or domestic partner, parents, siblings, grandparents, children, nieces or nephews, including step relatives, adopted relatives and half-siblings.
Even if your state law permits notarizing for relatives, it is possible for a signer to challenge the Notary’s impartiality in court if a legal dispute arises over notarizing a family member’s signature on a document. Because of this, Notaries may wish to avoid any question of possible bias by referring relatives to another Notary. In fact, state officials in Montana recommend against notarizing for relatives in the Montana Notary Public Handbook, even though it is allowed by statute: “The Secretary of State’s office cautions that notaries should seriously consider the potential conflicts that may arise over documents which transfer property or rights (titles, deeds, wills, powers of attorney, etc.) among family members. ‘Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ are good words to apply in these situations.”
Avoiding Bias In The Workplace
When it comes to notarizing for your employer, impartiality issues are a bit trickier. If your boss asks you to limit your Notary services only to employees or clients of your business, can you do so?
Some states, including California and Texas, permit employers to limit Notary services during business hours. However, the states of Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts and New Mexico specifically prohibit employers and Notaries from limiting their service to business customers or clients. In states that do not address workplace notarization issues in statute, the NNA recommends following Standard I-A-4 of The Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility: “The Notary shall not refuse to perform a lawful and proper notarial act solely because the signer is not a client or customer of the Notary or the Notary’s employer.”
Impartiality And Charging Notary Fees
Notaries should avoid unfair bias when charging fees. The Code discourages basing a signer’s fee on ethnicity, citizenship, lifestyle, religion or politics (Standard I-B-2). For example, you should not charge a lower fee for those who share your religious beliefs, while charging higher fees for signers who follow other beliefs.
Lowering or waiving a Notary fee for a signer who is in distress or suffering from financial hardship is not considered inappropriate. Many Notaries offer free or reduced fees when serving members of their communities who are in need. Charitable acts do not show unfair bias or compromise a Notary’s impartiality.
David Thun is an Associate Editor at the National Notary Association.