Definition of a Notary, Duties, Where to Notarize, and Examples

What Is a Notary?

A notary is a publicly commissioned official who serves as an impartial witness to the signing of a legal document. Document signings where the services of a notary are generally necessary are real estate deeds, affidavits, wills, trusts, powers of attorney, bills of sale, or other official transactional documents. The main reason a notary is used is to deter fraud.

Key Takeaways

  • A notary is an impartial witness to the signing or authentication of a legal document.
  • Examples in which notaries are required include real estate deeds, affidavits, wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.
  • Notaries must be at least 18 years old and reside in the state where they are licensed. Thereafter the steps to becoming a notary differ from state to state.
  • The National Notary Association (NNA) is a good resource for education and information about notaries.

Understanding the Role of a Notary

A notary—also referred to as a notary public—can be used to create trusted documentation or that a transaction occured and was officially recorded. For a document to be notarized, it must contain a stated commitment. The document must also contain original signatures from the parties involved.

Before signing a document, notaries ask for photo identification from the participating parties. A notary can refuse to authenticate a document if they are uncertain about the identity of the signing parties or if there is evidence of fraud. The document then receives a notarial certificate and the seal of the notary who witnessed the signings.

Notaries cannot refuse to witness a document based on race, nationality, religion, or sex.

Notary History

According to the National Notary Association (NNA), notaries were used as far back as 2750 B.C.E. in Egypt and Sumeria. Called scribes by the Egyptians, these writers and witnesses documented much of the history of the ancient world. The Roman Empire used notarii and scribae to witness and document everything from speeches to weather and to create official documents. The first recognized notary was Tiro, a Roman servant who developed a shorthand for recording speeches.

The Chinese also used scribes to document events, teachings, log resource and labor data, and help the state function with detailed accounting.

Notaries accompanied Christopher Columbus on his voyages to assure King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that all discoveries were valid.

Writer Mark Twain was a notary, while Salvador Dali, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, were the sons of notaries. Coolidge remains the only president sworn into office by a notary, his father.

Women were not allowed to be notaries until the 1900s but now outnumber male notaries, according to the NNA.

How to Become a Notary

The steps to becoming a notary vary from state to state. Broadly, notaries must be at least 18 years old and reside in the state where they are licensed.

Costs to become a notary include training, supplies, a bond, and the oath of office. Notaries cannot give legal advice and can be fined for doing so. They are also not to act in situations where they have a personal interest.

Requirements vary, but in general, most states require you to:

  • Meet all state requirements
  • Register for an approved notary course and attend it
  • Pass an exam
  • Complete an application, get it notarized and submit it with any required documentation
  • Upon approval, take your oath of office, pay a fee, and buy your notary seal

Additionally, many states do not allow someone to become a notary if they have a prior felony or misdemeanor conviction.

Where Can I Notarize a Document?

Many notaries provide their services and create listings or web pages with contact information. Many packaging stores, postal centers, postal services, and copy centers have notaries employed also. Some places you can get a document notarized are:

  • Post offices
  • Banks and credit unions
  • Real estate firms
  • Tax and accounting Offices
  • Libraries
  • Colleges
  • Shipping stores

You can also look online for online notaries in your area. Some states began exploring electronic and remote notary options during the Covid-19 pandemic.Many states have enacted legislation authorizing Remote Online Notarization (RON) following the Covid-19 outbreak and pandemic.

Using RON, you can access the services of a notary online from anywhere as long as your state's requirements are met. Most states place regulatory compliance on the office of the Secretary of State—you can check with your Secretary of State to see if RON is available.

What Does a Notary Do?

A notary is a public official trusted by a state government to witness signatures and verify that transactions occurred or that something documented actually happened.

What Does It Take to Become a Notary?

To become a notary, you need to meet your state's requirements, then go through a learning and application process. You also may be required to take an exam. Once you pass, you're sworn into office as a notary.

How Much Does It Cost to Be a Notary?

The fees to be a notary vary by state. In some states, notaries are required to recertify, adding to the costs. They also must buy their seal.

The Bottom Line

Notaries have served an essential function in government and society for thousands of years. From documenting crop yields in the past to verifying documents and signatures over the internet, notaries continue to ensure that information provided can be trusted.

All states and counties have notaries. You can find a notary in many businesses—you might even find one living next door. If you live in a remote area or cannot otherwise find a notary, many states have enacted legislation to make it easier to have your documents notarized through remote technologies.

Article Sources
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  1. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "Apply to Become a Notary Public."

  2. National Notary Association. "Notary History."

  3. Princeton University. "Scribal Identity in Burials of Early China and Ancient Egypt."

  4. National Notary Association. "Notary History."

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