While it may seem that a notary’s job is straightforward, simple errors could result in delays and legal or financial consequences. This is why notaries should take their jobs seriously. Below is an overview of the common mistakes that notaries should avoid.
1- Not requiring the signer’s presence or properly identifying the signer
The cornerstone of any notarial act is requiring the personal appearance of the signer and properly identifying the signer at the time of the notarization. Unless these two requirements are met, the notarial act is invalid. Both requirements are often violated when a notary is trying to do a favor for a boss, family member, friend, or co-worker. Never bend the rules for anyone. Remember, when you are completing a notarial certificate, you are attesting in the certificate that the signer personally appeared before you and that you verified the identity of the signer through satisfactory methods.
2- Failing to identify counterfeit identifications
While most notaries are not trained experts in identifying forged signatures or IDs, a notary is required to exercise a high degree of reasonable care and due diligence when verifying the identity of a signer. To determine whether the identification card is counterfeit, examine the identification card and look closely for these red flags:
- Raised edges around the photograph.
- Discrepancies between the description and the appearance of the signer.
- Discrepancies between the signature on the document and the one on the ID.
- Irregularities in the color, surface, texture, and quality of the ID.
- An old ID that looks brand new or a new ID that looks old.
- Erasures or correction fluid marks.
- Misspelled words.
3- Giving opinions or advice at a signing
Non-attorney notaries should never provide advice or opinions to clients. The sole purpose of the notary is to serve as an impartial witness to the signing of important transactions. It is not the notary’s job to worry about whether the transaction itself is right or wrong or if it is in the best interest of the signer. If you provide advice, you could face financial, legal, and professional consequences.
4- Giving in to pressure
Don’t yield to pressure from family members to notarize a document if you feel the signer lacks awareness or competency. For example, this may occur when notarizing important documents, wills, or powers of attorney for the elderly, who may not be sure of what is happening during a notarization. Also, avoid using family members as credible witnesses even if they insist. Credible witnesses must be impartial; they must not be named in the document or benefit from the transaction.
5- Not performing the verbal notarial ceremony
The verbal notarial ceremony is a crucial part of a notarization. Without it, the notarial act may be invalid. Many notaries skip the ceremony and just sign and stamp the certificate. This is poor notary behavior.
6- Not keeping a notary journal
While not every state requires notaries to keep a notary journal, it is highly recommended. Having a complete, detailed, and sequential record of every notarial act protects notaries from legal or financial trouble. The information contained in the notary journal, as long as it is accurate, can be used as proof when a notary is charged with wrongdoing. If your state does not specify what information must be recorded, you should at least include the following:
1. A description of the act or document.
2. The name, address, and signature of the signer.
3. The type of ID the signer presented.
4. A note about what fees were collected.
7- Omitting the venue or including an incorrect venue on the notarial certificate
It is important to fill out notarial certificates accurately. Notaries often forget to write in the venue where the notarization took place, or they enter the incorrect venue. A missing or incorrect signer’s name printed on the notarial certificate is another common mistake. Incorrect venues or signer’s names may invalidate the notarial act. Recording offices will reject notarial certificates with missing or incorrect information.
8- Using white-out pens to correct mistakes
While white-out is often useful for written errors, notaries should never use it to correct errors on notarial certificates. Recording officers will consider any notary-related document with white-out on it as evidence of tampering and may reject the document. If you do make a mistake, strike through the error and initial your correction. Record the corrections you made in your notary journal.
8- Affixing a notary stamp without completing a notarial certificate
Don’t leave incomplete notarial certificates with your notary stamp on them. Someone could find one and use it to commit fraud. Always affix your notary stamp on notarial certificates after you have performed the notarial act ceremony, recorded the transaction in your record book, and filled out and signed the notarial certificate.
10- Placing a notary stamp impression over text
Every notary should understand that his or her notary stamp is a symbol of authority; it validates the notary’s professional role in performing the notarial act. Notaries must never affix their notary stamps over any text or signatures. If the area for the notary seal is too small, you may have to place a seal in the margin. You can also attach a loose notarial certificate to any document that does not have sufficient space to affix your notary seal.
11- Correcting information on the notary stamp impression
Your notary stamp should include all of the correct information about your notary commission and the elements required by your state notary law. Crossing out any information on the notary stamp impression will likely result in the document being rejected.
12- Using a notary seal that is not photographically reproducible
It is preferable to use ink that is dark enough to reproduce legible notary stamp impressions on copies
. You must affix your notary seal on a document so that it is clearly defined and not at all faded. It should be clear enough to be photographed and photocopied. Problems occur when the notary stamp is pressed too lightly or the surface is uneven. If this is the case, you can affix another notary stamp next to or near the first one. If allowed by your state, keep a backup notary stamp in case your notary stamp impression becomes faded.
13- Using the words notario publico on advertisements
A notario publico or a notaire in Latin America and other countries is not the same as a notary public in the United States. Notaries in Latin America and other countries are actually lawyers, or persons with significant legal training, who have the authority in those countries to draft legal documents and give legal advice. In contrast, notaries in almost every state (except in Louisiana and Puerto Rico) do not have this authority. It is illegal for a notary to advertise himself or herself as a “notario publico” or to translate the phrase “notary public” into any language other than English without adding a statement, in the same language as the advertisement, that the notary is not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice. Check your state’s notary law for the disclaimer you should use with such advertisements.
14- Certifying copies of public records
The American Association of Notaries receives numerous calls from notaries asking if they can certify copies of birth certificates, marriage certificates, college transcripts, and so forth. Remember, you can only certify a copy if an individual provides you with an original document. When an individual requests a certified copy, such as a marriage certificate, from the county clerk’s office, the office issues a certified copy of the original. The original, however, is kept at the clerk’s office. When you receive a request to certify a copy of a public record, refer the client to the correct government agency.
15- Completing immigration forms
Federal laws and regulations allow only attorneys and those individuals who are “designated entities” by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to assist non-citizens in negotiating their legal status. A notary is solely responsible for performing notarial services such as administering oaths and taking acknowledgments. Non-attorney notaries should not solicit or accept compensation to prepare legal documents. For immigration services, the notary should encourage the signer to consult with an attorney with expertise in immigration-related matters. Practicing law without a license is illegal; notaries can be subject to severe administrative, civil, and criminal penalties for engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
16- Notarizing documents to which the notary is a party (conflict of interest)
A notary who, in any transaction, has a beneficial interest or may obtain any type of financial gain apart from his or her notarial fees, no matter how small or nominal, may not act as a notary for that notarial transaction.
17- Failing to use your official notary name
When completing notarial certificates, always use your official notary name as printed on your notary commission certificate. Many documents have been rejected because the notary failed to properly print the notarial certificate with his or her official name.
If you avoid making these mistakes, your notary business will run smoothly and you will earn a good reputation among clients and fellow notaries. Be sure to stay up to date on your state’s notary laws as any changes will impact what you can and cannot do.
By Evelin Garcia, a Contributing Writer with the American Association of Notaries, Inc.