A notary is a person licensed by the government to perform acts in legal affairs, in particular witnessing signatures on documents. The form that the notarial profession takes varies with local legal systems.
Most common law systems have what is called in the United States a notary public, a public official who notarizes legal documents and who can also administer and take oaths and affirmations, among other tasks. In the United States, a signing agent, also known as a loan signing agent, is a notary public who specializes in notarizing mortgage and real estate documents. Although notaries public are public officials, they are not paid by the government; they may obtain income by charging fees, provide free services in connection with other employment (for example, bank employees), or provide free services for the public good. Documents are notarized to deter fraud and to ensure they are properly executed. An impartial witness (the notary) identifies signers to screen out impostors and to make sure they have entered into agreements knowingly and willingly. Loan documents including deeds, affidavits, contracts, powers of attorney are very common documents needing notarization. In the US (except Puerto Rico), any person – lawyer or otherwise – may be commissioned as a notary.
Most civil law-based systems have the civil law notary, a legal professional working in civil law performing many more functions. The Worshipful Company of Scriveners use an old English term for a notary, and are an association of notaries practising in central London since 1373.
To "notarize" a document or event is not a term of art, and its definition varies from place to place; but it generally means the performance by a notary of a series of possible steps, which may include the following (not an exhaustive list):
- Identifying the person appearing before the notary by reference to significant proofs of evidence including passport, driving license, birth certificate, diplomatic documents etc. The notary may have to exercise considerable ingenuity in some cases, such as in the case of Holocaust victims who lack formal documentation or illegal immigrants
- Where land titles are involved or significant rights may accrue by reference to the identity, signatures may also be verified, recorded and compared
- Recording the proof of identity in the notarial register or protocol
- Satisfying the notary that the person appearing is of full age and capacity to do whatever is intended
- Taking an affidavit or declaration and recording that fact
- Taking detailed instructions for a protest of a bill of exchange or a ship's protest and preparing it
- Recording the signature of the person in the register or protocol
- Taking an acknowledgment (in the United States) of execution of a document and preparing a certificate of acknowledgement
- Preparing a notarial certificate (in most other jurisdictions) as to the execution or other step
- Sealing or stamping and signing the document
- Recording all steps in the register or protocol
- Delivering the completed original to the person appearing
- In some cases, retaining a copy of the document in the register or protocol
- Charging the person appearing a fee for the service
Often, in the case of lawyer notaries, the certificate to be provided will not require the person appearing to sign. Examples are: certificates authenticating copies - which are mostly not within the permissible functions of U.S. notaries, and certificates as to law, such as certificates as to the capacity of a company to perform certain acts, or explaining probate law in the place.
However, in civil-law jurisdictions (including Puerto Rico and Quebec), notaries are qualified lawyers who provide many of the same services as common-law attorneys/solicitors (negotiation and drafting of contracts, legal advice, settlement of estates, creation of a company and its status, writing of wills and power of attorney, interpretation of the law, mediation, etc...) except any involvement in disputes to be presented before a court. Notaries are specialized in all matters relating to real estate, for example, completing title exams in order to confirm the ownership of the property, the existence of any encumbrances such as easements or mortgages.
In the United States, the states of Virginia, Texas, and Nevada have all passed laws allowing for online witness by notaries, using screen sharing or webcam as well as identity verification processes. Virginia was the first state to pass legislation allowing online notarization in 2012. Texas and Nevada passed similar laws in 2017 that go into effect in July, 2018. Some sites and apps include Notarize, DocVerify, NotaryCam, Safedocs, and SIGNiX. Notarize is also the first company to offer fully online mortgage closings, executing the first in August of 2017 with United Wholesale Mortgage and Stewart Title. In the United States as of 2017 there are estimated to be over 4 million notaries employed.
- "What is a Notary Public?". National Notary Association. Retrieved 9 May 2013.
- Piombino, Alfred E. (2011). Notary Public Handbook: Principles, Practices & Cases, National Edition (First ed.). East Coast Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9445606-9-3.
- "Notaries Are Starting To Put Down The Stamp And Pick Up A Webcam". NPR.org. Retrieved 2017-06-12.