Contracts and other legally binding agreements come with an element of risk. Once a party signs on the dotted line, he’s bound by the terms of the document. That’s one reason why people hire lawyers to review contracts before signing them so they understand their obligations, rights and benefits. But what happens when someone forges a signature on a document?
Protections Provided By Notary Service
A person whose name is signed without her knowledge becomes indebted without her permission. She can easily break the terms of an agreement she never knew existed. Unless she can prove that the signature is false, she could suffer personal and financial losses.
On the flip side, other parties to the agreement can also lose out. If a victim of forgery can prove his case to the court, he’s no longer bound by the terms of the document and may be due compensation.
A notary public's signature and stamp validates the signature on a document. In doing so, it protects consumers and organizations against fraud.
What Is a Notary Public Signature?
A notary public is an individual commissioned by the state to verify the identity of people who are signing documents. In some cases, a notary will also verify the identity of people who are making oaths. A notary public's stamp is proof that all the signatures on a document are legitimate.
The requirements for becoming a notary public vary by state. In some areas, a notary public must be a practicing lawyer; in others, all someone has to do is fill out a form and pay a small fee. Commissions are good for several years and require renewal.
The Notarization Process
Once commissioned, a notary public must follow state guidelines for:
- Verifying a signatory’s identity.
- Recording document information.
- Performing notary services.
It is important to note: A notary public's signature does not address the accuracy, validity or legality of the contents of the documents signed. Notarization is not a replacement for legal assistance or advice.
Once a notary verifies someone’s identity and witnesses a signature, she applies her stamp to the document. The notary places an embossed seal on the document or applies a black self-inking stamp. Either should display the notary’s commission number and expiration date.
The notary signs the stamp or seal and registers the signature in a journal. While not a legal requirement in every state, a notary journal can serve as an important record during a court case.
What Types of Documents Should Be Notarized?
A notary can verify the signatures on almost any document. Some documents aren’t considered legally binding without a verified signature. These often include:
- Real estate transactions.
- Copy certifications.
- Guardianship papers.
People often notarize other types of documents as extra protection against lawsuits and fraud. These may include:
- Car title transfers.
- Power of attorney statements.
- Loan documents.
Certain documents aren’t commonly notarized – and shouldn’t be. Financial transactions involving securities require a different type of signature verification called a signature guarantee medallion. And while wills aren’t typically notarized, they often contain a self-proving affidavit that must be.
Regardless of where someone has a document notarized, it’s important to work with a notary who has the experience to properly apply state law. This is especially true in the digital era.
Can a Notary Verify a Digital Signature?
Digital notary services are in high demand, and service providers are in short supply despite laws regulating the practice. Important legislation includes the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (E-SIGN) Act and the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act.
These laws govern the types of online signatures permissible, as well as the appropriate ways to verify them. While some require a digitized handwritten signature collected by a touchscreen device, others allow for typewritten names, emails and passwords, numerical passcodes and even voice samples.
Digital notarizations offer increased security and lower risks. There is an extensive number of programs available to help verify someone’s identity online with exceptional accuracy. Unfortunately, all the laws in the world can’t overcome public perception, and most businesses still consider online transactions to be riskier than in-person notarizations.
Limitations of Digital Notarization
Not everyone will accept a digitally notarized document. Consumers should check in advance before investing in an online notary service.
Public concerns outweigh the factual benefits of online notarization. While E-sign and UETA create a legal framework for digital services, few states have invested in the necessary infrastructure.
While things may change in the future, in 2019, digital services were not available in the following states:
- New Hampshire
- South Carolina
Of the states where e-notarization is available, the following allow for remote notarization performed via webcam:
Online notarization has special challenges when it comes to ID verification and citizenship. Individuals may need to take extra steps to ensure they pass.
What Documents Does a Notary Need?
In some states, like Iowa, notaries can personally vouch for someone’s identity. Other states aren’t so relaxed and require official documents, such as:
- Driver’s license.
- State ID.
- Green card.
- U.S. military ID.
A notary can refuse identification he believes is invalid. He might refuse an expired ID, for instance, or an ID with significant damage. A notary may be able to use alternative means for identification if a primary source isn’t available.
Notaries can and should provide services to foreign citizens who have valid identification. In some states, it is illegal to refuse to provide services without a compelling reason. The exception is digital notarization.
How Do You Prove Identity for E-Notarization?
Verification for online notarization depends entirely upon a signatory’s U.S. credit profile. It also requires a multiple-step process which validates:
- U.S. citizenship.
- Valid Social Security number.
- Existing credit history.
- Accessible freeze-free credit report.
- Valid U.S. mobile phone number.
The biggest roadblock to e-notarization is a locked credit profile. Consumers do this to prevent identity theft, but failing to remove a block or freeze before processing will result in an inability to process a notarization. Mobile numbers can also cause havoc. Google Voice, VoIP and other services don’t qualify. The signatory must have an existing mobile number with a legitimate cellular phone service for verification to work.
Questions Required for a Credit Profile
Before approval is complete, the signer must answer certain questions regarding her credit profile. An inability to answer these questions correctly will result in a failed notarization. These questions may include:
- The name of a lender.
- The make or model of a financed vehicle.
- A previous address on a credit file.
- The amount of a mortgage.
The barriers to online notarization are much higher than in-person notarization, so it’s easy to see why it’s more secure.
Can I Notarize My Own Documents?
No. Notaries public aren’t allowed to verify their own signatures or documents in which they have a personal stake. There is no state or territory in the U.S. where a notary can verify his own signature. No exceptions. Many states also restrict the business of spouses and other family members.
Company Employees as Notaries
However, an interesting situation arises when a business asks an employee to become a notary for the purpose of notarizing contracts.
It’s common for employers to have a notary public on site to notarize documents. This includes contracts that benefit the business. It isn’t seen as a conflict of interest. Most states allow employers to restrict notary services performed during work hours to those which benefit the business. But five states are an exception:
- New Mexico
Notaries in these states can’t refuse service based on whether someone is a customer of their employers.
Following the Rules for Notarization
Unfortunately, sometimes well-intending employers don’t understand the current laws. If an employer asks a notary employee to break the law, he must say no. That’s not always easy without risking employment, but it can help for the employee to point to the state law that the request would violate and provide legal alternatives.
Notaries can be prosecuted for notarizing documents incorrectly. They can also lose their jobs for refusing to break the law. Most of the time, employers just don’t realize they’re asking for the wrong thing. If a consumer or business representative isn’t sure a notary is providing services in the appropriate way, she should consider hiring an independent notary instead.
Can Lawyers Verify Their own Signatures?
Only licensed attorneys are permitted to be notaries public in Louisiana and Puerto Rico. While a lawyer who is also a notary cannot verify her own signature, she can notarize documents she’s prepared for a client. It’s considered part of the service. A different notary would be needed only if the lawyer was a party to the contract.
How Can I Have My Signature Notarized?
Notary services are available in many government buildings and financial institutions. To have a document notarized, an individual must provide the notary with:
- An original copy of an unsigned document.
- Forms of identification required by the state.
- A fee, if required.
Fees for Notarization
Notarization is often available for free on request or for a small fee. Many states regulate the amount a notary can charge. Businesses might have their own notaries on staff.
There are also independent notaries available for hire online who perform services locally and on the internet. Consumers should make sure they understand the fees included for the service.
Fees for mobile notary service are more complicated. In these instances, a notary travels to a location to validate signatures. State law may or may not allow the notary to charge extra for travel costs or related expenses.
Where Can I Find a Qualified Notary?
There are several sources online to find independent notaries public. Some provide mobile services, meaning they will travel to a physical location. Others perform digital or online notary services via an internet connection.
There are several ways to find a qualified notary. Consumers can start by searching the websites of professional notary associations. These groups offer extra training and support to notaries public, so their members might be better prepared than others. Consumers in some states can also find a list of notaries public through their secretary of state office.
In recent years, several websites have cropped up to offer digital notary services. These sites can notarize documents for residents in several different states. Examples include:
Consumers should check online reviews for more information.
Where Can I Get Signature Guarantee Medallion Service?
Similar to a notary service, a signature guarantee medallion verifies the signature on documents related to certain financial transactions. However, it also guarantees the funds involved in the transaction. Because of the liability involved, it’s more difficult to obtain a signature guarantee.
Notaries public don’t provide this service, so consumers and organizations should check with their financial institutions. Many banks and credit unions offer signature guarantees to trusted account holders. It might be necessary to start a new account at a qualified bank before being able to obtain a signature guarantee.
Signature guarantee providers require a different set of documents to prove a signatory’s identity. Not only does the service provider need to validate the signature but also the ownership of the securities. As of this writing, only one business, eSignature Guarantee, provides digital signature guarantee services, and financial institutions don’t have to accept them.
What If Someone Notarizes My Signature in Error?
Identity theft is the leading financial crime in the U.S. People forge names on loans, credit card applications, property and title transfers, and more. Consumers, businesses and other entities that suffer losses due to incorrectly notarized documents have three main remedies:
- File a complaint with the secretary of state.
- File a police report.
- Sue the notary in court.
The first step, however, should be to contact a lawyer.