Everything a Notary Needs to Know About Acknowledgments

Notaries in every state are authorized to take acknowledgments, but this basic act is often misunderstood by both new and experienced notaries. An acknowledgment is a public declaration made by the signer of a particular document that he or she executed the document voluntarily as his or her free act and deed.  The acknowledgment, in a sense, solemnizes the execution of an instrument of writing. Documents usually requiring an acknowledgment include deeds, mortgages, and powers of attorney. The acknowledgment is the most common, and arguably the most important notarial act.

Courts have consistently upheld that the proper taking of acknowledgments by notaries public constitutes a very important quasi-judicial act, and a notary’s certificate of acknowledgment, when made as required by law, is conclusive as to the facts presented therein.  Even by the testimony of the notary, the facts set forth in a notary’s acknowledgment certificate cannot be impeached without the “clearest, strongest, and most convincing” evidence that the certificate is false. A notarial certificate is, therefore, a very powerful document in a court of law. For this reason, it is important that a notary never certify facts in a certificate of acknowledgment which are not true, including a statement that the signatory personally appeared if he or she did, in fact, not appear.

Many notaries believe that when taking an acknowledgment, all they have to do is witness a signature. To the contrary, an acknowledgment does not require the signatory to sign the document in the notary’s presence. The signatory is only required to declare that he or she executed the document at some point and that his or her signature on the document is genuine. Whether the document was signed two days prior, two months prior, or twenty years prior, the notary’s only concern is the sufficiency of the acknowledgment itself. The notary usually compels a proper acknowledgment by simply asking the signatory, “Do you acknowledge that you have executed this document voluntarily and that this is your genuine signature?” To this, the signatory must answer affirmatively.

It is equally important that the notary be certain that the signatory is executing the document voluntarily and does not appear to be signing it under duress. Notaries often find themselves in awkward situations involving elderly signatories and disgruntled family members trying to obtain power of attorney or some other legal authority over them. Family members often try to coerce these elderly persons or threaten them into signing a particular document. When a notary is asked to notarize a signature in this situation, he or she should ask that all family members leave the room so that the elderly person can be questioned separately. The notary must verify the person’s mental capability by asking him or her questions unrelated to the notarization, such as the current date, where they are located, or who our president is. The notary should also ensure that the person understands what they are signing and is not being coerced. In the absence of the notary’s satisfaction that the document is being voluntarily executed, the notary can and must refuse to notarize the signature.
It is always required, when taking an acknowledgment of an instrument of writing, that the notary execute an acknowledgment certificate which must be attached to or incorporated into the document presented. The requirements for the certificate vary by state.

Although all notaries can take acknowledgments, each state has different requirements as to how this simple act is to be done. Be sure to consult your state's laws or commissioning authority for detailed information for your state.

Legal Disclaimer: The American Association of Notaries is committed to providing accurate and up-to-date information. However, it is important to note that the information provided on this page is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. We do not claim to be attorneys and do not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or reliability of the information provided. It is your responsibility to know the appropriate notary laws governing your state. You should always seek the advice of a licensed attorney for any legal matters. In no event shall the American Association of Notaries, its employees, or contractors be liable to you for any claims, penalties, losses, damages, or expenses, howsoever arising, including, and without limitation, direct or indirect loss, or consequential loss, out of or in connection with the use of the information contained on any of the American Association of Notaries website pages. Notaries are advised to seek the advice of their state’s notary authorities or attorneys if they have legal questions. 

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