What is a Notary?

Courtesy of National Notary Association

People are often confused about who or what a Notary Public is and can do. While requirements to become a notary vary by state, sometimes by county, generally their services are verifying signings. While they do verify signatures; they don't give advice about the documents being signed.

What is a Notary?

A notary, also called a "notary public" is a responsible person appointed by state government to witness the signing of important documents and administer oaths.

Why are documents notarized?

To deter fraud. An impartial witness (the Notary) ensures that the signers of documents are who they say they are and not impostors. The Notary makes sure that signers have entered into agreements knowingly and willingly.

May any document be notarized?

For a document to be notarized, it must contain:

  • text committing the signer in some way
  • an original signature (not a photocopy) of the document signer
  • a notarial "certificate" which may appear on the document itself or on an attachment. The Notary fills in the certificate, signs it, then applies his or her seal to complete the notarization.

Is notarization required by law?

For many documents, yes. Certain affidavits, real estate deeds and other documents may not be legally binding unless they are properly notarized.

How does a Notary identify a signer?

Generally, the Notary will ask to see a current identification document that has a photograph, physical description and a signature. A driver's license, military ID or passport will usually be acceptable.

How much does a notarization cost?

Fees vary - as much as $10 in some states and as little as 50 cents in others - according to state law.

Does notarization mean that a document is "true" or "legal"?

No. Notaries are not responsible for the accuracy or legality of documents they notarize. Notaries certify the identity of signers. The signers are responsible for the content of the documents.

May a Notary give legal advice or draft legal documents?

Absolutely not. A Notary is forbidden from preparing legal documents for others or acting as a legal advisor unless he or she is also an attorney. Violators can be fined or jailed for the unauthorized practice of law.

May a Notary notarize or prepare immigration papers?

Only a few immigration forms need to be notarized, such as the Affidavit of Support (I-134), but U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) regulations state that no one may prepare or file another person's immigration papers unless he or she is an attorney or a U.S. Justice Department-approved "accredited representative." Nonattorneys can provide clerical, secretarial or translating assistance with INS forms, as long as no advice is given. However, courts have held that even the selection of which forms to complete can constitute the practice of law, since the filing of INS forms creates legal consequences having a substantial impact on the applicant.

May a Notary refuse to serve people?

Only if the Notary is uncertain of a signer's identity, willingness or general competence, or has a good reason to suspect fraud. Notaries should not refuse to serve anyone because of race, religion, nationality, lifestyle, or because the person is not a client or customer. Discrimination on any basis is not a suitable policy for a public official.

How does a U.S. Notary differ from a Notario Publico?

A U.S. Notary is not the same as a Latin Notario Publico. In Latin America, a Notario Publico is a high-ranking official like a judge, or an attorney. Unlike a Notario Publico, a U.S. Notary is forbidden from preparing legal documents or giving advice on immigration or other matters, unless he or she is also an attorney.

Where do I report illegal or improper acts by a Notary?

Any wrongdoing or illegal activity should be reported to the police or appropriate State Notary-regulating office (Secretary of State, Governor, Lieutenant Governor or Attorney General.) Find links to the State government offices here.

National Notary Association is widely known for its role as the preeminent publisher of information for and about Notaries, as well as for the services and support it provides its member Notaries. "What Is A Notary Public?" is a brochure developed as a public service by the NNA. For more info, visit the NNA website.