Notary public (Pennsylvania)
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A notary public in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is empowered to perform seven distinct official acts: take affidavits, verifications, acknowledgments and depositions, certify copies of documents, administer oaths and affirmations, and protest dishonored negotiable instruments. A notary is strictly prohibited from giving legal advice or drafting legal documents such as contracts, mortgages, leases, wills, powers of attorney, liens or bonds.
According to the Pennsylvania Association of Notaries, there are more than 84,000 notaries in the state; 247 of them also have been approved by the Secretary of the Commonwealth to notarize electronically.
Although the notarial office is unique, other officers of the Commonwealth are authorized to act as notaries in some respects. For example, the Secretary and clerks of courts may issue certifications, election officers may administer oaths, and law enforcement officers may take affidavits.
Commissioners of Deeds
Until July 1, 2003, the Commonwealth required notaries to be residents of the state; non-residents were appointed Commissioners of Deeds, an essentially identical position. Now, anyone with a regular office located in Pennsylvania can be appointed a Notary; there will be no further Commissioners of Deeds appointed.
Notary Public Law
Pennsylvania notaries are governed by Title 57 of the Pennsylvania Statutes, known as the Notary Public Law. Act 151 of 2002 amended Title 57, bringing about the most significant changes to the Notary Public Law in 50 years. In effect since July 1, 2003, these changes include required education for notaries, specific signer identification procedures, eligibility of nonresidents to hold notarial commission, embossing seal no longer required on notarized documents, and authorization for electronic notarization. As a result of the repeal of the embosser requirement the wording "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" is recommended to be clearly written or typed along the top border of the Notary Public's notarial seal.
The first law to govern American notaries in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was enacted in 1791. Isaac Craig, a glassmaker in Pittsburgh, was the first notary to be appointed under the new, independent state constitution. Governor Charles Mifflin, the first constitutionally elected governor, appointed Craig, with whom he had served in the Revolutionary War.
However, as early as 1727, British-appointed notaries sympathetic to the call for American independence began administering “Oaths of Allegiance to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” in which individuals renounced loyalty to Britain. These oaths were documents signed by groups of individuals, in the style of a petition, or were personally written or distributed in a pre-printed form that could be signed, witnessed and sealed. In response to increasing numbers of foreigners arriving in the British colonies, King George II ordered the administration of “Oaths of Fidelity” and “Oaths of Abjuration” in 1729; the first oath disavowed ties to any monarch other than the British Crown, and the second abjured, or renounced, any connection to the Roman Catholic Church.
Throughout the 17th and 18th century—both before and after the Revolutionary War—notaries and their traveling counterparts, commissioners of deeds, played vital roles in documenting the formation of the country. They performed the notarial acts necessitated by owning property and titling land, electing governmental leaders, and building the economy. The 19th and 20th century saw the numbers of commissioned notaries increase dramatically to meet the needs of developing business and commerce and a related increase in the number of lawsuits.
The Pennsylvania State Archives has preserved examples of the work of notaries throughout the last three centuries in the state. The oldest of these documents involve land records, including the 1681 Land Charter, which transferred ownership of the land that became Pennsylvania from King Charles II of England to William Penn. Subsequently, Penn purchased some of the land in parcels from the natives who occupied it and who Penn considered the rightful owners. Many deeds for so-called Indian lands were drawn up, acknowledged before notaries, and publicly recorded. The State Archives also preserves what is probably the state’s earliest recorded fraudulent land transfers. The 1737 Walking Purchase is an instrument by which Penn’s sons sold Indian land that their father had not purchased to a European land speculator. This illegal agreement deprived the Delaware Indians of the entire upper Delaware and Lehigh River valleys.