A Notary is Not a Lawyer

Notarization might not mean what you think it means

When it comes to a notary public, the traditional thinking is that their signature provides a kind of official approval—a rubber stamp that elevates the contents of the document. But this is not so.

Unless a notary is also a lawyer, their training, duties and authority are limited to witnessing and extrinsic verification (that the document being signed is, for example, a power of attorney). If you need advice, explanation or verification regarding the contents of the documents being signed, such counsel may only be provided by an attorney licensed in your state.

In the U.S., a notary serves a discreet purpose, based on a very limited form of certification. To become a notary, one must be a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years old, and have resided in their current state for at least six months. Some states require a background check and/or additional training or testing, but, generally, it is merely required that one be able to review personal identification documents and identify the documents being signed. A notary is also supposed to assure that the signers understand the act of their signing, are not incapacitated (e.g., intoxicated) or signing under duress. In some cases, they must administer an oath from a signer attesting to the truth of the document’s contents.

Verifications a notary may provide include:

  • That a signer to a document is who they say they are
  • That a signer has sworn an oath that the contents of a signed affidavit are true and correct to the best of their knowledge
  • That a disinterested party has verified the validity of a document
  • Certification of copies of certain documents

The requirements for becoming a notary are minimal. The limitations of their authority are similarly minimal. A notary may not verify a signature that did not occur in their physical presence, nor may they provide information that would constitute legal advice, such as an opinion regarding a transaction. This is not to say that the witnessing role of a notary is inconsequential—on the contrary, verification of the identity of a signer to legal documents is an important way to prevent forms of fraud that stem from using another’s or a fake name in written transactions.

Note that there’s a distinction—albeit a confusing one—between a notary public and a notario publico (translated literally as “notary public”), a unique quasi-legal designation in many Latin American countries with additional legal expertise and authority. In some cases, as it is in Mexico, a notario must also be a lawyer. Under the laws outside the U.S., a notario may draft documents and verify the legality and consistency of their contents.

A related, but slightly different verification used by banks and financial institutions is a medallion signature guarantee. This type of signature verification is distinct primarily in its use in financial documents, such as a transfer of securities. Qualified medallion verifiers must be members of either the Stock Exchanges Medallion Program, the Securities Transfer Agents Medallion Program or the New York Stock Exchange Medallion Signature Program.

A notary is not a pared-down version of a lawyer, and should not be consulted nor relied upon as such. When a notary has signed a document, they have only attested that the signer’s ID matches the name signed, and possibly that the signer has sworn to the truth of the document’s contents. When you need help drafting, reviewing or understanding the contents of legal documents, talk to a qualified and experienced attorney.

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