When Can a Notary Use “Personal Knowledge” to Identify a Signer?

In most states, notaries have three options for identifying signers. They can:

  • Examine a state-issued identification card.
  • Rely on their own personal knowledge of the signer.
  • Use a credible witness to identify the signer.

While relying on an identification card is probably the most common way of verifying the identity of a signer, as a notary, you will encounter instances when a signer does not have an I.D. available. In such cases, you may be able to use your personal knowledge to identify the signer, but be careful. It is important to understand what constitutes personal knowledge, so that you do not violate your notarial duties or risk becoming involved in fraud.

All states except California allow use of “personal knowledge” to identify a signer, though regulations may vary from state to state. Be sure to check your state’s notary laws before proceeding. Even after checking your notary laws, however, you may still have questions, because there is no standard definition of “personal knowledge.” Just how well do you have to know the signer to use this method of identification?

It’s perhaps easiest to begin with what does not qualify as personal knowledge. You do not have personal knowledge of the signer if:

  • You two met a short time ago.
  • You have only communicated through the Internet or on the phone and have never met face-to-face in person.
  • You are relying on the word of someone else that the person is who they say they are. (In this case, you might have a credible witness, but you yourself do not have personal knowledge of the signer and could not use the personal knowledge option to identify the signer. You would first have to identify the credible witness.)

Before relying on the personal knowledge method of identification, ask yourself:

  • How long have I known this person? Has it been years, or days? A mere casual acquaintance with someone does not satisfy the criteria for using “personal knowledge” to identify a signer.
  • Do we have mutual acquaintances in common who can also vouch for this person’s identity? If you are co-workers, neighbors, or friends who share a number of common contacts, you can be more confident of the person’s identity.
  • How much do you know about this person? If all you know is the individual’s name, you should ask for an identification document.  If you’ve been friends or co-workers for years, however, you probably know a great deal about the individual.
  • How sure are you that this person is who they claim to be? You should be entirely confident before proceeding with the notarization.
  • Are you close family members? In that case, you may have lots of knowledge of the individual, but be cautious. Some states do not allow notaries to perform notarizations for close family members such as spouses, parents, or children. Even in those states that do allow you to notarize for a close family member, you must be sure you do not have a personal interest in the document being notarized.

If you have any doubts about the identity of the signer, always ask for identification or rely on the oath of a credible witness. It’s not worth risking your reputation as a notary to take shortcuts, even if you are being pressured to do so.  And, as always, check with your state’s notary laws for additional guidance.

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