What Is Being Notarized?
It is easy to get into a discussion (or argument) about differences that do not matter, especially online. Some days, it feels like we are back in medieval times, arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Those not involved in the discussion can be forgiven for rolling their eyes at these silly people, wasting time and energy over a piffle.
With notaries, one such argument is the one over what exactly is being notarized.
Whenever someone mentions notarizing a document, you can expect some notary to speak up and say “Wait a minute! You’re not notarizing a document! You’re notarizing a signature. The document does not matter at all — only the signature.”
To which, I have to answer:
- We cannot notarize a signature on a blank piece of paper. There has to be a document there for the signature to mean anything.
- Even if there is a valid distinction between notarizing a document and notarizing a signature of that document, the distinction is too subtle for most people and raising the issue makes you sound like a nitpicking know-it-all.
- While there is a point to be made about how little the contents of the document are supposed to matter to the notary, that is a point that needs to be made clearly, not buried under this argument over what is being notarized. (I have covered that point in previous articles here and will cover it again in future articles.)
- It is true that the notary does not need to read the entire document (and doing so may violate state or federal privacy laws). Even so, as a government official, the notary has the authority to scan enough of the contents to gather pertinent details for her notary journal and to know whether an oath or affirmation is required by the body of the document so she can administer one if so.
- A reasonable notary will also want to be sure there are no blank lines in a sworn statement that is being notarized, that all attachments referred to in the document are present, and that the document does not appear to advance any illegal or unethical or fraudulent purposes.
- As the most common type of notarization is an acknowledgment and as a person can sign an acknowledged document and present it to a notary at another time to have it notarized, the signature is simply there as evidence that the document was executed by the signer. It is the signed document that they are presenting, whether they sign it in the presence of the notary or have already signed it when they appear before the notary.
- For sworn statements, the signer is required to sign it in the presence of the notary after she administers an oath or affirmation to them. As with an acknowledged statement, they are signing the document to execute it. (For sworn statements, their signature also indicates that they were sworn as the document requires.)
- At the most basic level, a notary public is an official witness, so everything the notary does is connected to that role. What is being witnessed is a person (whose identity has been established) executing a document freely and willingly or acknowledging that they did so.
- If you look up “notary public” in any of the usual law dictionaries (Black’s, Ballentine’s, Barron’s) or the newer Nolo legal dictionary, you’ll see definitions that include documents and signatures, not just one or the other. This is because state laws and long-standing practices have all defined the role of the notary to include authenticating and certifying both documents and signatures upon those documents.
Taking all these points and concerns into account, my answer to the question of What is Being Notarized? is:
A notary public officially witnesses an event consisting of the execution of a document by a properly-identified person who did so freely and willingly and who was administered an oath or affirmation if required. All of the statements in the notary certificate relate to that event and to the notary’s role in the event. All of the information in the notary journal relates to the document and the event of its execution. These elements are what it means to notarize. In short, what is being notarized is an event.
An executed document bearing a signed notary certificate and a notary seal is the desired result of almost every request for notarization. So, I am quite happy to go with the common practice of saying a document was notarized, despite the nitpickers and nay-sayers who object.