Verifying the Identity of the Signer

The most important duty of a notary public is to verify the identity of the person signing the document. How this is done will depend upon the law in the notary's jurisdiction, so please check the following general principles against your state's laws and rules.

The first and most ancient form of verifying the identity of a signer is for the notary public to know him or her personally. Personal knowledge is often (but not always) defined by law. California does not allow this form of identity verification.

The second form of identity verification involves a credible witness, someone whom the notary public already personally knows and who also personally knows the document signer. The credible witness has to appear with the signer at the time that the document is being notarized. It is considered a best practice (or may be required by law) that the notary administer an oath or affirmation to the credible witness and that the witness sign an affidavit stating that he or she verifies the identity of the document signer. Because of the requirements that the credible witness be personally known to the notary public and that the witness personally know the document signer, this method of identity verification is used most often by notaries who notarize for their employer's clients or customers.

The third form of identity verification is the one most commonly used -- satisfactory evidence. In some states, the law specifies what constitutes satisfactory evidence. Other states do not specify, thus allowing the notary to decide what satisfactory evidence means. A driver's license or a state-issued non-driver's I.D. card are the two forms of identification documents seen most often. As Americans tend to be very mobile, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with driver's licenses and non-driver's I.D. cards from every state. The AAN has a book filled with information about driver's licenses and non-driver I.D.s to help you with this. Other common forms of identification documents include a passport or a military I.D.

A Social Security card, a birth certificate, a wedding license, or a credit card are NOT acceptable as a form of I.D., as they lack sufficient information for the notary to determine if the person presenting them is the person whose name appears on them. Knowing what to look for on an I.D. document can mean the difference between properly verifying the identity of the signer and letting fraud take place.

When the signer presents his I.D. to you, take a moment to look at it. If the signer is wearing a hat or scarf and the picture on the I.D. lacks that, ask him to remove it. If he is smiling or frowning in the picture, ask him to do so now. See if his appearance reasonably resembles the picture. Look at the descriptive details on the I.D. - does the age (based on the birth year shown) match the age of the person in front of you? Does the eye and hair color match? Does the signature on the I.D. match the signature on the document and the one in your notary journal? Does the name match that which is shown on the document? If you spot anything about the I.D. that makes you nervous, ask the signer to explain and listen to his answer while watching his face and hands to see if he appears to be telling the truth.

If you are not satisfied as to the signer's identity, you must refuse to notarize the document.

-- Tim Gatewood is a Contributing Writer with the American Association of Notaries

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. 

Notary bonds and errors and omissions insurance policies provided by this insurance agency, American Association of Notaries, Inc., are underwritten by Western Surety Company, Universal Surety of America, or Surety Bonding Company of America, which are subsidiaries of CNA Surety.