Q: What does it mean to have a legal document “notarized”?
A: Having a legal document notarized means that the signer swears that the document is true and correct. The person who notarizes a legal document is a “notary.” This person acts as an official and unbiased witness to the identity of the person who signs the document. The notary uses a special “seal” or stamp, which helps to prevent fraud and forgery.
Q: What does a notary do?
A: A notary public is a person who has been authorized to administer oaths throughout the state. The notary can take and certify acknowledgments of such legal instruments as deeds, mortgages, liens, and powers of attorney. The notary may take and certify depositions (pre-trial conversations with witnesses) for use in court. In a deposition, a person swears that certain facts are true (though these may not be admissible in court if the person is not available for cross-examination). A notary also may compel someone to attend a deposition, with help from the county sheriff to enforce compliance with notices to witnesses to appear.
Q: If I wanted to become a notary, what would I have to do?
A: If you are an Ohio citizen over 18 years of age and are qualified to vote, you can become a notary public. You must obtain a certificate from a common pleas or appeals judge, or a supreme court justice attesting to your good moral character, that you are a citizen of Ohio and your county of residence, and that you are capable of discharging the duties of a notary public. In urban counties, you are required to pass a police records check and prove residence; the judge then prepares the certificate based upon that information. You must then pass a written examination. Assuming you meet these qualifications, you will be given an appointment by the governor to serve as a notary public. Documentation verifying your appointment is then filed with the county clerk of court, and your certification is valid for five years. You must then purchase a “State of Ohio” seal (to be imprinted onto papers you notarize) and an official register to record every certificate of protest and copy of note document; both the seal and the register are required by Ohio law (O.R.C. §147.04). Very few notaries ever encounter either the “certificate of protest” document or the “copy of note” document, but the law still requires the notary to have a register. Most notaries use the register to record the details of the documents they notarize.
Q: All I want is for the notary public to notarize my title transfer; why won’t he do that?
A: The state government appoints the notary public to ensure that documents are valid. You must sign documents such as title transfers for automobiles and affidavits in front of the notary, or you must personally tell the notary that you have signed. If a notary refuses to notarize your document, it is likely to be because you have not met this requirement. Buyers of automobiles sometimes will take an automobile title to a notary and ask the notary sign to off on the transfer, despite the seller’s absence. The notary is not permitted to do this, and should always refuse such a request. Also, the notary must refuse to notarize any document that is not complete or contains blank lines, or a document that the notary has not witnessed or acknowledged.
Q: That sounds inconvenient. Wouldn’t it be easier for the car dealer just to tell the notary that the seller has signed?
A: It might be easier if document signers did not have to personally appear, but the law requires exactly that. In a recent criminal case, a notary was charged with not requiring the signers to appear, and as a result criminals were able to steal and sell the homes of victims by using notarized powers of attorney. The same can happen to automobiles; if the seller does not personally appear in front of the notary, there can be no certainty that the automobile is not stolen property. The seller must be able to prove his or her identity, usually by producing a valid driver’s license or state ID.
Q: Can I just write legal documents myself rather than paying for an attorney, and then ask a notary to authenticate them?
A: While it is generally wise to rely on an attorney who understands the law to draft legal documents for you, you can choose to draft essential documents yourself and ask a notary public to authenticate them. Such essential documents may include wills, deeds, powers-of-attorney, affidavits, acknowledgements, and protests. If you’ve made a mistake in a document, however, the notary cannot be held liable unless you did not actually appear to swear to the truth of the documents.
Q: Where can I get information about becoming a notary?
A: The Ohio Secretary of State’s office provides information, including county contact information, through its website at www.sos.state.oh.us/recordsIndexes/Notary.aspx .
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky attorney Paul Croushore, an author for Moore’s Federal Practice.