Rules for Notarized Documents in California

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When someone is signing an important document in California, notarizing the signature may be required; in other cases, it may be recommended or permitted. When a signature is notarized, it confirms that the individual signing the document presented sufficient evidence of their identity to allow the notary to affirm that they are who they claim to be.

The verb "notarized" comes from the term "notary public." In California, as in many states, a notary public is a person authorized to witness important signatures and confirm the identity of the person signing. California leaves little to chance when it comes to notarization in the state. The law gives the California Secretary of State the responsibility for licensing notaries and setting requirements for documents being notarized.

What Is a Notary?

A notary public is a person authorized by the state to witness signatures and confirm the identity of the individual signing a document. Notaries have only that authority given them by their state governments, and every state has its own unique notary laws. Some states give notaries the right to perform minimal duties, while others give them more authority. The extent of a notary's authority depends completely on each state’s notary laws since there is no national notary law.

A notary's job is more difficult and complex than it appears. While witnessing a signature and attesting to having witnessed it may not seem like a difficult task, the job of a notary in most states is actually more complex and important. Notaries everywhere administer oaths and affirmations and certify the acknowledgment of a document. But, depending on where the notary is licensed, they may have the right to certify affidavits and depositions, certify the contents of safe deposit boxes, and even perform civil marriage ceremonies.

Notary Licensing Requirements in California

In California, a notary must be licensed by the state before they can notarize documents. The Secretary of State sets out rules for becoming a notary and also specifies the acts that a notary can perform in the state and the extent of their authority.

Anyone wishing to obtain a notary license in California must meet certain requirements: First, they must be a resident of the state and at least 18 years old. They must also complete a training course, pass a test on the material and also pass a background check. They must provide Live Scan fingerprints as part of background check.

Becoming a California Notary

The process of obtaining a notary license begins with an application. The person must complete and sign the application and attach to it a passport-style color photo. For an original notary license, the person must complete a six-hour training program approved by the Secretary of State. For renewal licenses requested while the commission is still active, only a three-hour course is required.

Proof of completion of the course (provided by the notary public education course provider) must be attached to the application. The applicant must register for a notary exam, pay the required fee and pass the exam with 70 percent or more.

If the applicant passes the exam, they must submit to a background check and provide fingerprints before they are issued their commission and permission to order a notary seal, essential for notarizing most documents.

Disqualification Due to Convictions

If the applicant has been convicted of a felony and been incarcerated or on probation in the 10 years prior to the application date, they will be disqualified. Some misdemeanor convictions are also disqualifying. Any failure to reveal a conviction will always be grounds for disqualification.

Notary Public Bond Process

Once an applicant has received their four-year commission documents, they must obtain a notary public bond. Under California state law, a notary public must file an official bond in the amount of $15,000 with their local county clerk's office within 30 calendar days from the date the commission begins.

California Certificate of Acknowledgment

The most common form completed by a notary in California is the Certificate of Acknowledgment. This form can be appended to almost any document that calls for a signature, although there are limited exceptions. The required language of the certificate form is set out in California Civil Code Section 1189.

With the Certificate of Acknowledgment, a notary certifies that the person signing the attached document appeared in person before them. The date and county of this appearance is also noted in the certificate. The notary also certifies that they have seen "satisfactory evidence" confirming the identity of the person signing.

The notary certification is signed by the notary under penalty of perjury. The notary uses their official seal on the document and also enters all relevant information about the matter in their official sequential journal. This information includes the way they confirmed the identity of the signer.

California Jurat Form

The second most common form completed by California notaries is called the jurat, authorized under Government Code Section 8202. A jurat form contains the words "subscribed and sworn to" or "subscribed and affirmed" in it. That means that the person signing did not just acknowledge that they signed the document to be certified, but they actually signed it in front of the notary public on the date and in the county specified. In the jurat, a notary also swears that they administered the oath or affirmation to the person before they signed the document and that they confirmed the identity of the signer.

Confirming Identity of Signer

Whether using a certificate of affirmation or a jurat, a notary public is obligated to confirm the identity of the person signing. This is one of the things that the notary is certifying: that the person signing the notarized document has in fact identified themselves accurately. California law is very specific about how identity can be confirmed.

Acceptable Forms of ID

First, keep in mind that California law mandates that the person signing the document appears in person before the notary. It is not legal to notarize a document in an online procedure in this state. The most common method of confirming a person's identity is with one of a variety of official photo identity cards. These include any of these documents that is current or was issued within the past five years:

  • California driver's license.
  • California ID card.
  • United States passport.
  • Inmate identification card issued by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a sheriff’s department.

Other state driver licenses or ID cards, or those issued by Mexico or Canada are also permitted as long as they contain a photograph, a description of the person, the person's signature and an identifying number. This also applies to consular identification documents, passports from other countries, a U.S. military identification card, an employee identification card issued by the State of California or a city or county in California, or an identification card issued by a federally recognized tribal government.

Establishing ID Via a Witness

The signing person's identity can also be established by one witness personally known to the notary or two witnesses not personally known to the notary. The notary is required to verify the identity of the witness or witnesses using the same type of documentation as required for a signer. Each witness must swear that:

  • The signer appearing before the notary public is the individual named in the document.
  • The witness personally knows the signer.
  • The circumstances of the signer make it very difficult or impossible for the signer to obtain another form of identification.
  • The signer does not have any of the required identification documents.
  • The witness has no financial or pecuniary interest in the document.

Note that, in California, it is never sufficient that a person is known to the notary public. Be it the notary's mother, neighbor or friend, personal knowledge of the notary is never enough. The person must offer the same types of identification documents or witnesses as a stranger.

Recordkeeping Requirements Under California Notary Law

A California notary must by law keep a journal listing, in order of certification, every document they notarize. For each entry, they must include the type of document, the method of determining identity, the time and date of the certification, the amount the notary charged for the service and the signature of each person requiring the notary stamp.

However, there are additional requirements if the document notarized is a deed, quitclaim deed, deed of trust, or other document affecting real property, or a power of attorney document. In that event, every notarized signer must also provide a fingerprint of their right thumb in the journal. If the person's right thumbprint cannot be taken, the notary must get the left thumbprint or the print of another finger.

Documents that Cannot Be Notarized

While a notary can generally notarize most documents with signatures in California, there are a few exceptions. A few obvious ones are blank documents, documents with faxed signatures, and documents in which the notary public has a financial interest. A notary cannot witness their own signature.

Restrictions to Powers of a Notary

In addition, there are a few other restrictions. First, when it comes to powers of attorney, a notary public may only certify copies of powers of attorney under Probate Code Section 4307. That means that the notary certifies only that the certifying person has examined the original power of attorney and the copy, and that the copy is a true and correct copy of the original power of attorney.

Second, a regular notary cannot certify copies of birth, fetal death, death and marriage records. This can only be done by the State Registrar, by registrars and by county recorders.

In addition, while California law holds no general prohibition against notarizing immigration documents, several laws regulate this. First, a notary cannot assist a person to complete immigration forms unless they are a licensed attorney or a registered California immigration consultant. To make sure this rule is followed, a notary cannot charge anyone more than $15 for notarizing a set of immigration forms.

No Requirement that Wills Be Notarized

California does not require that a last will and testament be notarized in order to be valid. Rather, a standard written will must be witnessed, which is a different matter. A notary can only notarize a will when requested to do so by an attorney.

Fees for Notarizing Documents

The California statutes (Government Code Section 8211) regulates the maximum fee a notary may charge for different services, but the notary is otherwise free to charge less or nothing if they choose to do so. Whether to charge a notary fee and how much to charge is left to the discretion of the notary public or their employer, as long as the amount is not greater than the statutory maximum fees.

Generally, the maximum fee that a notary public can charge in California is $15 (as of time of publication). The notary can charge $15 for each signature they notarize or each oath they administer. That means that the cost of either of the two most common notary services, certificates of affirmation and jurats, cannot be more than $15.

The same is true for notarizing certified copies of powers of attorney and, per person, for notarizing immigration forms. Notaries are not permitted to charge a fee for notarizing signatures on an election ballot.