What Is Notarized?

Notarized Documents Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

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Notarized documents are documents that have been certified by a notary public to verify their authenticity. Notarization includes the witness and record of the signing of documents to make sure the process is not fraudulent, and to assure that the documents can be trusted by the authorities who requested them.

Important documents often need to be notarized, but how can you accomplish this? While it may sound intimidating, the process is often as easy as a trip to your local bank, credit union, or shipping center.

Definition and Examples of Notarized Documents

Notarized documents have been signed in front of a notary public and vetted for authenticity. The notary public is an official who verifies the identities of everybody signing the document, witnesses the signatures, records the act in an official log, and marks the document with a stamp (or “seal”).

Documents usually require notarization if they handle important financial or legal matters that require a great deal of trust in all parties named in the document. Other types of documents that may need a notary are those that have the potential for fraud.

For example, if you are designating a beneficiary on a life insurance policy, you're signing over a large amount of money, and you won't be around to vouch for the transaction. Transfers of title for cars or real estate, powers of attorney, wills and trusts, advanced directives and other healthcare-related forms, and handgun permits, are just a few examples of the many types of documents that often require notarization.

How Notarization Works

Getting a notarized document means that a signature is legitimate—and nothing more. Notaries are not required (or expected) to read through the material, evaluate it for you, or provide legal advice. Nor will your notary alert you to any problems you may be signing up for. All they do is verify who signed a document and when.

Documents may or may not become official immediately after they’re notarized. If a valid signature is all it takes to execute an agreement, a properly signed and notarized document may do the trick. Ask a local attorney for guidance on your particular situation and local laws.

The Notary's Duties

A notary's job is to ensure that all signatures on a document are legitimate. This happens in a series of careful checks:

  • Identity verification: A notary requires identification from anybody signing a document and records details about the identification documents each individual provides.
  • Willing signers: Notaries are supposed to look for signs of coercion. Even if you don't like what's in a document, are you signing on your own free will, or is somebody forcing you to sign?
  • Capable of sound decisions: A notary should verify that signers are in a condition where they can truly understand what they’re signing and that they have legal capacity to sign. If an individual is intoxicated, heavily medicated, or unable to understand what's happening for any reason, the notary cannot notarize the document.

A notary will refuse to validate a signature if there are any potential problems with the signer.

It’s possible to get a notarized document that involves you in illegal activity. You can also get one that is not enforceable under your state’s laws and is therefore useless. It’s your responsibility to know what you're signing because notaries do not provide legal advice.

Requirements for Notarized Documents

To get a document notarized, you'll need to visit a notary public, prove your identity, and sign the document. To make sure you have everything in order, read through the following steps before starting the process.

Derek Abella © The Balance 2019 

Bring Official Identification

The notary will ask for identification to verify that you really are who you say you are. You’ll need official identification with a photograph—a driver’s license, passport, or other government-issued ID will typically do the trick, although requirements vary from state to state. If the notary is not confident that you are who you say you are, he or she can refuse to notarize your document. Nobody is required to notarize anything.

Wait to Sign

Bring an unsigned document to the notary—don’t sign it ahead of time. In almost all cases, the notary needs to watch you sign. If they don't witness your signature, they can't verify who signed the document.

Pay Fees

Depending on where you go to get documents notarized, you may have to pay a modest fee. Notaries have to spend money to operate as a notary, they have to keep up with changing laws, and they have to keep records, so don’t be surprised if you’re asked to pay a fee. Typically you’ll spend less than $25, and the cost might be as low as $5, depending on the state.

Where to Get Documents Notarized

You can get legal forms notarized in a variety of places.

Financial Institutions

Your local bank or credit union is an excellent place to find a notary. If you’re an account holder, the service might be free. Even if you don’t have an account with a particular financial institution, a notary there may be willing to notarize something for you for a small fee.

Other Businesses

Local and big-name businesses often have notaries available. Call before making a trip, as services may vary from location to location. Also, the service depends on the presence of a certain employee, so make sure they're on duty when you plan to go. You can often find notaries at the following places:

  • Shipping stores (FedEx and UPS stores, for example)
  • Office supply retailers (OfficeMax or Staples, for example)
  • Check cashing and money transfer stores
  • Car dealerships
  • Neighborhood convenience stores
  • Tax preparers and law offices, which often have a notary on staff. If you need a document notarized for your attorney, just ask if they can do it in-house.

Individual Sources

You'll probably be surprised at how many individuals are registered and can be found online. You may locate legitimate notary publics working from home or other less obvious places of business.

Mobile notaries can visit your home, office, or other location to assist with documents.

Online Notary

It is possible to get some documents notarized online, but you need to verify that this practice is acceptable to the entity that needs the documents. Some situations, such as real estate transactions in certain states, require an in-person notary. Most legal documents also require that the process take place in person. In other situations (particularly for a quick transaction when you're pressed for time), or for less formal letters, it may make sense to try notarizing online. When working online, the notary must verify your identity and record your signature by video. For example, the Notarize app offers Virginia notary services (which might be valid nationwide) for $25.

Depending on your state, online notaries may be required to study, attend training sessions, and pass exams in the same fashion as in-person notaries. Each state has its own rules and procedures.

Key Takeaways

  • Notarized documents have been certified by a notary public to verify their authenticity.
  • A notary public is an official who has been trained to verify identities, witness the signing, and record the notarization process; notaries do not prevent fraud or provide legal advice.
  • There are a series of steps you must follow to get notarized documents, including leaving signatures blank until a notary can witness.
  • You can get documents notarized at financial institutions, law firms, postal offices, and many other places of business, or through individual providers.
  • Some less formal documents may allow for online notarization.