The notary public is said to the oldest branch of the legal profession that exists in the world.
The office of the notary goes back to the Roman Empire and early history of the Catholic Church. The Romans developed the office and from that the Church devised it’s own system to handle civil matters after the fall of the Roman Empire.
The word notary is derived from Latin ‘nota’ — a system of shorthand developed by M. Tullius Tiro (103-3 B.C.) This method was used for agreements, conveyances and other instruments and they were described as ‘notarius’. Notarii were semi-officials whose numbers grew as the empire grew into a guild or company that had limited supervision, regulations and fees.
Notarii were also officers of the Catholic Church and Pope Clement IV appointed seven in Rome to describe the acts of martyrs who might suffer there. Later it was declared that the papal notaries could act in any country.
Notaries were known in England during the Middle Ages but since the law did not require deeds or other instruments in common use to be prepared, they were not needed by medieval law and therefore, not recognized. During the 17th century, common law became the supreme body of of law in England and the office of notary public became less important.
The settlers who left England to find a new life in the new world, brought with them the common law of England including the notary public. They were described as "…a notary public. who confirms and attests the truth of any deed or writing, in order to render the same more credible and authentic in any country whatever. And he principally made use of in courts of judicature and business relating to merchants. For a notary public is a certain kind of witness, and therefore, ought to give evidence touching such things as fall under his corporeal senses, and not of such matters as fall under the judgement of the understanding."**
The early colonial charters started enacting laws affecting the office of the notary public. They designated an officer who was authorized to appoint notaries, defined their duties, settled their fees, and provided territorial limits of their jurisdiction and other matters.
So what do you do to become a Notary Public? It varies depending on which state you live in, and in other countries. Some countries require educational requirements or additional information. Since I was a notary in New Jersey, I will list that state’s requiremernts and rules to give you a flavor of qualifications, rules and responsibilities. Other states’ requirements and rules can be found on the web or at your town hall offices.
Example of one state: Qualifications to be a Notary Public in the State of New Jersey:
must be 18 years or older.
must be a resident of New Jersey or a resident of an adjoining state who maintains, or is regularly employed in, an office in this State.
must not have been convicted of a crime under the laws of any state or the United States, for an offense involving dishonesty, or a crime of the first or second degree.
A notary public is appointed (commissioned) by the State Treasurer for a five-year period, and is sworn into office by the clerk of the county in which he/she resides. (usually a $25.00 fee). Appointments can be renewed for subsequent five-year periods.
Services that a duly commissioned and qualified (sworn) Notary Public performs in any county in N.J.:
Administer oaths and affirmations; take acknowledgments; execute jurats for affidavits and other verifications; take proofs of deeds
The majority of notaries perform acknowledgements - witnessing the signature of a person or persons. To execute legally, these steps are necessary: 1) That the signer of a document appear before the notary, (you cannot acknowledge the signature of someone who is not present - not even a husband or a wife - you may be signing their house away without their knowledge!) 2) That the notary positively identify the signer, (as stated above, notaries cannot accept a previously signed/dated copy without witnessing the signature) and 3) That the signer both acknowledge the signature as his/hers, and that the signature is made willingly.
Identification documents are not required if: 1) the signer is personally known to the Notary, or 2) a credible witness, known to both the signer and notary, swears to the identity of the signer.
If the signer is not personally known, the notary ensures the signer appears before him/her and presents at least one form of identification that provides a physical description of the signer– ie., driver’s license.
Responsibilities of the Notary:
The notary reviews the document presented for completeness. This is not a formal legal review, such as would be performed by an accountant or an attorney. Rather, it is a review to ensure that there are no blanks in the document. Should blanks be discovered, the signer must either fill them in or strike them out by drawing a line or "X" through them. It is a quick view; the notary need not know the contents of the instrument; he/she merely is witnessing that the identified singer actually signed it.
Ensure that the signer understands the title of the document and is signing freely and willingly. By obtaining positive ID and asking brief questions as to the title and basic substance of the document, the notary can make these determinations.
Sign, date, and stamp an acknowledgment certificate The notary’s ink stamp should include the date on which the notary’s commission expires. The stamp should be placed next to, but not over, the notary’s signature. (If the notary does not have an ink stamp, his/her name and commission expiration date must be printed or typed on the certificate as indicated.)
Make a journal entry. *This is key and very important. The jornal entry provides evidence and an audit trail thereby protecting both the notary and the general public. Required information includes: 1. date and time of notary act, 2. type of act (i.e., acknowledgment), 3. title of document, 4. date document was signed, 5. signature; printed name and address of each signer, and if applicable, each witness, and 6. form of ID — e.g. identification document, personal knowledge, or credible witness.
Note: Journals should be bound to prevent tampering. Journals may be obtained from stationers or professional associations.
Charge only the statutory fee ($2.50). Actually, most notaries supply services free of charge, especially in corporate or banking settings. I have seen notary fees for $15.00 or $25.00 in some business establishments.
Actions Notaries are prohibited from doing:
Never pre-date an action. The notary may never date an action (acknowledgement, jurat, etc.,) prior to the execution (signature) date appearing on the document involved.
Never lend a journal, stamp, or other personalized notary equipment to another individual.
Never prepare a legal document or give advice on legal matters, or matters pertaining to land titles. This includes the preparation of pleadings, affidavits, briefs and any other submissions to the court.
Never, in the capacity as a notary public, appear as a representative of another person in a legal proceeding.
Never, in the capacity as a notary public, act for others in the collection of delinquent bills or claims.
**Reference: Manual for Notaries Public of New Jersey/American Society of Notaries; NEW JERSEY NOTARY PUBLIC MANUAL
Marie Coppola © July 2014