John Hancock…Is That Really You?

All too often, documents such as contracts, wills or promissory notes, are contested based on allegations of fraudulent or forged signatures. Indeed, our office once handled a two-week arbitration based solely on the issue of authentication of a signature on a contract. Fortunately, a quick, simple and inexpensive solution to prevent this problem is to have the document notarized by a notary public (“Notary”). A notarization, or a notarial act, is the process whereby a Notary assures and documents that: (1) the signer of the document appeared before the Notary, (2) the Notary identified the signer as the individual whose signature appears, and (3) the signer provided his or her signature willingly and was not coerced or under duress. Generally speaking, the party whose signature is being notarized must identify himself/herself, provide valid personal identification (i.e., a driver’s license), attest that the contents of the document are true, and that the provisions of the document will take effect exactly as drafted. Finally, the document must be signed in the presence of the Notary.

Why is Notarization Important?

A primary reason to have a document notarized is to deter fraud by providing an additional layer of verification that the document was signed by the individual whose name appears. In most jurisdictions, notarized documents are self-authenticating. A Notary can also certify a copy of a document as being an authentic copy of the original. For more information, please see our previous blog post regarding the enforceability of duplicate contracts. Ultimately, this means that the signers do not need to testify in court to verify the authenticity of their signatures. Thus, if there is ever a dispute as to the authenticity of a signature, significant time and money can be saved by avoiding testimony – which also eliminates the potential of a dispute over witness credibility (i.e., he said, she said).

How are Notaries Regulated?

Each state individually regulates and governs the conduct of Notaries. For specifics on New Jersey law, see the New Jersey Notary Public Manual, and for New York’s law, see the New York Notary Public Law. In most cases, a Notary can be held personally liable for his or her intentional or negligent acts or misconduct during the notarization process. For example, a Notary could be liable for damages or criminal penalties if he or she notarizes a signature which was not provided in the Notary’s presence or which the Notary knows is not authentic. A Notary is generally charged with the responsibility of going through a document to make sure that there are no alterations or blank spaces in the document prior to the notarization. The strict regulation of Notaries provides additional recourse for the aggrieved party, as the Notary could be held responsible for damages a party suffers as a direct result of the failure of the Notary to perform his or her responsibilities.

The Future of Notarization

As with most areas of the law, notarization is attempting to catch up with technology. Some states have authorized eNotarization, which is essentially the same as a paper notarization except that the document being notarized is in digital form, and the Notary certifies with an electronic signature. Depending on the state, the information in a Notary’s seal may be placed on the electronic document as a graphic image. Nevertheless, the same basic elements of traditional paper notarization remain, including specifically, the requirement for the signer to physically appear before the Notary. Recently, Virginia has taken eNotarization a step further and authorized webcam notarization, which means that the document is being notarized electronically and the signer does not need to physically appear before the Notary. However, a few states, including New Jersey, have issued public statements expressly banning webcam notarization and still require signers to physically appear before a Notary.

The bottom line: parties should consider backing up their “John Hancock” by notarizing their important documents. The low cost, typical accessibility of an authorized Notary, and simplicity of the process may make it worth the extra effort.