Legalese — Notaries

Often, when you have to sign a document, you will be requested to do so in front of a notary.  What does that mean exactly? Well, in the first place, it means that the notary has to see you signing the paper, or at least have you, in person, verify that it is in fact your signature.  The notary has to know who you are, or have sufficient evidence that you are.  This is why notaries will often ask to see your driver’s license, even if they know you already.  It also means that you swear by whatever information it is you are signing off on. 

The swearing part is important, because it can change a simple lie or misstatement into perjury.  Let’s say your cousin asks you to write an affidavit for his impending divorce.  You suspect this cousin is stoned 85% of the time.  He steals money out of your wallet every time you see him.  He is also, for reasons you never quite understood, your mother’s particular favorite.  He wants you to say that he is a fine, upstanding citizen and you’ve never known him to so much as have an entire beer at a sitting.  Your mother gives you a lecture on supporting family members and you agree.  Your other cousin is a notary, and you sign it.  Since this is a sworn statement to be used in a court of law, you have just committed perjury.  You may or may not be prosecuted for it, but you have committed a crime of “moral turpitude” which can prevent you from getting certain jobs. 

Having your signature notarized also means that it really was you that signed it.  There are plenty of times and ways in which someone might sign your name for you.  My father, for example, may not have signed his own name on anything in decades – my mother does it for him.  It’s ok, it’s not forgery, since she has permission to do this.  However, let’s say someone opens a charge card in your name and buys ten grand worth of stuff.  You get sued for nonpayment.  You could easily go in and say, “Hey, wait a minute.  I didn’t sign this. That’s not my signature.” The credit card company would have a hard time proving it was actually you.  However, if the signature on the loan application is notarized, that is proof that it was in fact your signature made by you in front of someone who has taken an oath to only put their seal on things they have personally witnessed.

Of course, that’s not how things always work in real life.  I’ve personally seen any number of situations in which a form has to be notarized and a clerk or someone says, “Oh, don’t worry about that, we’ll do that later.”  That always sets my teeth on edge.  It means that the notary is breaking his or her oath, and it completely defeats the point of having the paper notarized.  It isn’t much proof if the safeguards aren’t in place.  But you will be held to it. 

Think of having something notarized as raising your right hand and swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  Not only is that oath as sacred as something secular can be, but it also connects you indelibly with the statement.  Although it is often presented casually, or just seems like some annoying extra step that has no necessity, it takes what you are signing off on to another level.

Imagine what would happen if student’s progress reports and report cards had to be signed and notarized by their parents.  I wonder how many of the signatures would be changed.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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