Why ask to have something notarized?
February 6, 2011 6:07 AM   Subscribe

What is the purpose of having something notarized? Do notaries have any legal responsibility for the authenticity of the documents they sign?

I'm curious about the rationale for requiring that a document be notarized. It seems an anachronism in the age of credit reporting, etc. Recently I had to have a auto loan refi document notarized. Naturally (and this has been true of nearly every encounter I've ever had with a notary) the notary was uncomfortable affixing her stamp, since the document referred to facts not immediately verifiable, including my car's mileage. I invited her to step outside and examine the odometer, but it raised a question. Are notaries held liable for the accuracy of what they sign/stamp? If so, how in the world is $5 or some similarly negligible amount adequate compensation? What constitutes the training to be a notary? Is this a useful/meaningful service or requirement in 2011? In my experience, either the notary is wary of signing the documents in question or blithely unconcerned with the veracity of the document involved. The procedure seems either gratuitous either way.
posted by brynnwood to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Primarily, a notary certifies that the person signing the document is who they claim to be, and that they signed the document in the presence of the notary.

A notary's stamp in no way vouches for the accuracy of any details in the document.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:13 AM on February 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In Illinois, I paid the state a fee ($10) and got a surety bond from an insurance company ($30 for 4 years for a $5,000 bond, required by law), and got a handbook in return which I'm supposed to read, but there's no test or anything. In Illinois the maximum I am allowed to charge is $1. (I've never charged.)

In Illinois, basically a notary does two things: Verify identity, typically on important documents that are being signed and then mailed, which is generally done by examining someone's state ID before they sign the document; and witness and notarize oaths, such as on an affidavit, so that someone doesn't have to go to court and swear before a judge on a small piece of paperwork that'll be mailed off somewhere anyway. I'm not notarizing that they're truthful, I'm notarizing that they took the oath. If they perjure themselves on a sworn statement, my only role is that I witnesses the sworn statement so it was, in fact, perjury. (There are also a few more obscure things notaries do in Illinois, particularly relating to real property in Cook County, but I don't really deal with those ever.)

I would not be ABLE to notarize that your odometer in fact said 75,000 miles; I can only notarize that YOU swore to that fact. Just because someone hands you a document and says "get it notarized" doesn't mean it's actually notarizable. (I actually ran into this not long ago with an affidavit I was swearing to for a friend seeking permanent residency in the U.S.; the document his attorney sent was not notarizable in Illinois, though it was in Virginia, the state in which the attorney practiced. Luckily as a notary I was able to recognize that before trying to get it notarized and say, um, dude, I can't get this notarized in Illinois, it has to be in a different format.)

Personally I became a notary in order to be able to notarize affidavits I prepared in the course of my law practice (which is allowed in Illinois in most circumstances), so I'm notarizing a very limited range of documents in matters where I'm pretty well-aware of the specifics. The only other things I notarized were for friends where I was attesting to their identity when they had to file some state form that required notarization. Like maybe twice. I probably would not have notarized your car loan document, but it would have depended on what, specifically, the document wanted me to notarize. But then, I'm not like a bank notary who notarizes for all customers who come through the door.

Rules and duties for notaries vary considerably from state to state, but this is all eminently googleable and you should be able to fairly quickly find the rules for your state.

I actually let my notarial license lapse last year so I'm not currently a notary. If it matters.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:31 AM on February 6, 2011 [10 favorites]

Yeah, this is why it doesn't matter what language the document is in, or its contents. All a notary does is swear & testify that the name you are putting down on the document and signing belongs to you. Also, that you are not being coerced to sign/signing under duress. I'm pretty sure this is true across all 50 United States, though in my case, I'm a notary in the State of Georgia.
posted by litnerd at 7:05 AM on February 6, 2011

Notaries testify by their signature and seal that the person signing the document is, in fact, the person the signer claims to be.
posted by dfriedman at 7:07 AM on February 6, 2011

There's a This American Life episode detailing a guy who swindles people out of their homes with notarized documents. People call the cops, he shows the a bogus notarized document claiming he's the authorized tenant and owner, or a notarized "eviction notice", and the cops just play along, because they're not trained to verify the authenticity of these documents. This guy would just make the false documents and then take them to a real notary to get an official-looking stamp placed on them. It's not the notary's job to verify the authenticity if the document, just the identity of the person who signs it.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:17 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a notary. I would notarize your form, provided you had already filled in everything, and had proven to me that you are who you say you are on the form. I have to keep a book of all the things I notarize, that includes how I knew you were who you said you were.

The biggest no-no, from what I can remember from my class on the subject, is empty spaces on the form.
posted by SMPA at 7:50 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, oh, and also, no signing the form and then bringing it to the notary.
posted by SMPA at 7:50 AM on February 6, 2011

Eyebrows McGee has it. Although, I'm in Illinois as well, so maybe that's only true for Illinois. Although, I think the process for becoming one is more complicated if that person is not a lawyer.

They just verify that the signers are (mostly) who they say they are. Within reason. They don't have to do background checks or anything like that, they just have to make sure that the person signing the document matches their drivers license and that nothing obviously hinky is going on.
posted by gjc at 8:33 AM on February 6, 2011

I forgot to mention that the swindler above was operating in post-Katrina New Orleans. Things were already pretty chaotic, and it wasn't that easy to verify official records in the first place.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:10 AM on February 6, 2011

litnerd: Yeah, this is why it doesn't matter what language the document is in, or its contents.

This may vary by state. I remember a New Jersey notary refusing to notarize a statement for us because it was written in Chinese and "could be power of attorney for all I know". In the end, he agreed to let us put the English translation on the same piece of paper and notarize that.

IIRC, another sticking point was that they didn't have a translator so the notary could not verify that my grandmother (who did not speak English) understood her statement and the oath.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:40 AM on February 6, 2011

You might be interested to know that the role of a notary extends into many more parts of life in other countries. This is what a notaire gets involved with in France (just with respect to property purchases) for example.
posted by rongorongo at 1:40 PM on February 6, 2011

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