Notaries serve as impartial witnesses to the signing of legal documents. Their primary role is to prevent fraud by verifying the identity of the signers involved in a transaction. Because of this, notaries must ensure the notarizations they complete are free of notarial errors.
This article will explore some of the typical mistakes notaries make and offer useful advice for avoiding such potentially costly errors.
Here are the top twelve most common errors made by notaries:
1. Failing to Check ID Properly.
As a notary, verifying the identity of signers is a crucial aspect of your role. It is paramount that you only perform notarizations for individuals whose identity you have confirmed. This is because notarizing a document without proper identification can lead to fraud and legal issues. As a trusted public official, you have a responsibility to protect the public and uphold the integrity of the notarial process. Always request government-issued identification and confirm that the photo on the ID matches the signer. Remember, identity verification is not an optional step in the notarial process—it's a requirement that must be taken seriously.
2. Notarizing Without the Signer Present.
It is crucial that a notary public never notarize a signature unless the signer personally appears before them. A notary who commits this grave error will likely have their commission suspended or revoked and may face civil or criminal penalties if fraud or loss results from their mistake. Therefore, it is imperative that notaries never allow their employers or friends to pressure them into notarizing a document without the signer being present. Instead, they should educate their employers and friends about the severe consequences of performing a notarization in the absence of the signer. By doing so, notaries can help ensure the integrity of the notarization process and maintain their professional reputation.
3. Failing to Date the Notarial Certificate with the Current Date.
Forgetting to date the notarial certificate or using an incorrect date can render the notarization invalid. For example, when you take an acknowledgment, the signer may have signed and dated the document at an earlier date, but you should date the notarial certificate when you actually took the acknowledgement. By doing so, you can ensure that the notarial act is valid. As a responsible notary, you must pay attention to details and follow proper notarial procedures to avoid any legal issues.
4. Failing to Properly Complete a Notarial Certificate.
Leaving blanks or failing to complete the notarial certificate fully may render the notarial act invalid.
Typically, a notarial certificate must include, at a minimum, the following elements:
- The venue (the city/town, county, and state where the notarial act occurred)
- The date the notarization took place
- The notary’s seal
- The notary’s signature
Double check the notarial certificate to ensure you have completed all required elements whenever you perform a notarization.
5. Notarizing with an Expired Notary Commission.
Notarizing documents after your commission has expired is a serious error and can lead to legal complications. The notarization will likely be invalidated, and you could face civil or criminal penalties.
Here’s some tips for avoiding this mistake:
- Set a reminder on your phone so you know when to renew your commission.
- Join a professional association, such as the American Association of Notaries, which will send you a reminder when your commission expiration date is approaching.
- Renew at the earliest possibility. Depending on your state, you may be able to submit a renewal application up to ninety days before your commission expires.
Don't risk legal complications—renew your notary commission on time.
6. Not Keeping a Notary Journal.
Although it may not be required by law in all states, the American Association of Notaries strongly recommends maintaining a journal of all notarial acts performed. This journal can serve as a crucial record that can protect the notary in case of false accusations of notarial misconduct or if they are called to testify in court.
If your state does not prescribe what information to chronicle in your journal, it is essential to record, at a minimum, the following details:
- The date the notarization occurred.
- The type of notarial act you performed.
- A brief description of the document.
- The name and address of the signer.
- The type of ID presented for identification purposes (personally known, oath of a credible witness, or the type of identification document presented).
- If a credible witness is used, the name and address of the credible witness.
- Any fees charged.
By keeping a notary journal, notaries can demonstrate their professionalism and their commitment to maintaining accurate and detailed records. It's a simple step that can provide valuable protection for both the notary and their clients.
7. Engaging in Unauthorized Practice of Law.
As a notary, it is essential to know the boundaries of your role and responsibilities. Notaries who are not licensed attorneys must never offer legal advice or imply that they are attorneys in their advertising. This is considered the unauthorized practice of law, and it can subject a notary to criminal penalties. To avoid such risks, it is crucial to refrain from any activities that may cross the line into legal advice or representation. Remember that your role as a notary is to witness the signing of documents, not to provide legal advice. To avoid the unauthorized practice of law, never:
- Offer legal or immigration advice.
- Draft legal documents.
- Tell your client which notarial certificate to select. (You may, however, allow your client to select a loose notarial certificate from your inventory on their own.)
- Use the word “notario” or otherwise translate the word notary into a non-English language in any advertising promoting your services. (This can imply to clients you are an attorney.)
8. Making an Illegible Notary Stamp Impression.
County clerks may reject recording legal instruments with missing or unclear notary stamp impressions. This can cause delays and frustration for those involved. To avoid this, it is important to follow some simple steps:
- Ensure your notary stamp is inked properly.
- Always test your notary stamp on a blank piece of paper before using it.
- Make sure the document is on a firm, flat surface.
- Avoid making a notary notary stamp impression over text.
Do not make any alteration to the notary stamp imprint with a pen as this may invalidate the document.
9. Improper Storage of Your Notary Stamp and Journal.
As a notary, you are responsible for keeping your notary stamp and notary journal under your exclusive control. Improper storage of these items can lead to misuse and potential fraud, which can damage your reputation and even result in legal consequences. To avoid such risks, we recommend you follow these tips for securely storing your notary equipment:
- Never leave your stamp or journal in your car.
- Store your stamp and journal in a locked drawer or safe.
- Never give your stamp or journal to someone else.
Remember, maintaining the integrity of your notary seal, stamp, and journal is critical to your success as a notary.
10. Not Determining the Signer’s Competency and Willingness to Sign.
Notaries play a crucial role in ensuring that principals sign documents willingly and for the intended purposes. This includes verifying the competency and willingness of signers before notarizing. If a signer is intoxicated, incompetent, or under duress, you should refuse to complete the notarization. To determine the competency of the signer, you can ask a few questions such as the current date and the name of the current president. By adhering to these standards, you can maintain the integrity of the notarization process and protect against fraudulent activity.
11. Notarizing for Close Relatives.
If your state does not have clear guidelines on the matter, it may be best to err on the side of caution and avoid notarizing for close relatives altogether. Such notarizations have the potential of creating a conflict of interest, even if it’s not immediately apparent. As a responsible notary, you have a duty to advise your close relative to find another notary to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. Close relatives can include spouses, parents, children, and siblings, among others.
12. Failing to Remain Properly Trained.
Failure to stay informed about the latest state laws and regulations affecting your profession can lead to unintentional mistakes that can result in serious consequences for you and your clients. Even if your state does not require formal notary training, you should familiarize yourself with notarial practice and procedures, ethics, and state laws.
Your education as a notary does not end when you receive your notary commission. To ensure that you are up-to-date with changing laws, join an association such as the American Association of Notaries. This will provide you with regular newsletters and updates on notary laws, ensuring that you stay informed of any changes in the notary profession. By keeping your training and knowledge up-to-date, you can provide better service to your clients and maintain a professional and trustworthy image.
Avoiding these twelve common mistakes requires ongoing education, diligence, and a strict adherence to the standards and laws governing notarial acts in the notary's jurisdiction.
By avoiding these common notary mistakes, you can ensure that your notarial acts are valid and error-free. Remember, as a notary public, you play a critical role in protecting the public from fraud.