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When to Use a Notary

Author:Megan R Stell  Date: December 03, 2007

You've just signed that lucrative contract to build a million widgets, and you're feeling great. Your company is in the black, employee morale is high and you had a notary public witness you signing that contract. So if any questions pertaining to the authenticity of your signature arise in the future, you are covered.  What? You did not have your signature notarized?  That's a big mistake, says Tim Reiniger, executive director of the National Notary Association. According to Reiniger, having a notary public witness a signature is a "powerful risk-management tool to prevent fraud and identity theft."

A notary public is a person with a special commission from a state or county government that allows him or her to acknowledge the official witnessing of another person's signature on a document. According to Reiniger, there are 4.5 million notaries in the United States. That figure does not include the millions of lawyers nationwide who by virtue of being an attorney are also vested with that authority. Each state maintains its own rules about whether attorneys are automatically notaries.

He says having a signature on a contract notarized is important for a few reasons. One of the most important ones is that under the Federal Rules of Evidence, a notarized document is considered "self-authenticating." The same is true under the rules of evidence in effect in each state, although there are a few states that don't follow this norm. When a document is self-authenticating, the signers of the contract do not need to testify in court to verify the authenticity of their signatures. That saves a lot of time and money. Having a document notarized is, Reiniger says, "a huge strategic advantage" in litigation.

While the duties of public notaries might be simple to execute, they are extremely important. First, a notary cannot attest to witnessing a signature unless the signer signs the document in their presence. To ensure the parties signing the document are the real people who are supposed to do so, some states require signers to present identification to the notary. The notary must also ascertain whether people are signing the document voluntarily or under duress. This is especially crucial when a senior citizen or someone with limited English skills is signing a document, Reiniger says. In some states, notaries are required to maintain a journal of the documents they notarize. The journal details the type of identification presented to the notary and a basic description of the document he or she notarized.

While in the distinct minority, a handful of states require notaries to be certified. This occurs when applicants complete required educational courses and pay a fee. States that impose these requirements on notaries include North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Mississippi, Oregon and California.

Tami Kamin-Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.