With the exception of Louisiana, whose private law is based on civil law rather than common law, a notary public in the United States of America has powers that are far more limited than the role of a civil law notary in the rest of the world. There are far more notaries in the United States than in other countries (4.5 million , compared with 900 in England and Wales). For the purposes of authentication, most countries require commercial or personal documents which originate from or are signed in another country to be notarized before they can be used or officially recorded or before they can have any legal effect. This includes the translation of such documents done by an expert translator approved by a governmental entity.
In some countries and states, notaries are required to undergo special training in the performance of their duties. Many must also first serve as an apprentice before being commissioned or licensed to practice their profession. In many countries even licensed lawyers (such as barristers or solicitors) must go through additional specialized notarial training and apprenticeship before being allowed to practice as a notary. A notary public commissioned in the United States of America is not an attorney-at-law unless also admitted to the bar. Although some countries consider the profession of a civil law notary, itself, to be the practice of law. Many even have institutes of higher education issuing degrees in the field. In the United Kingdom, for example, a notary public can perform any task a solicitor or other lawyer can perform, as part of their notary public duties, with the sole exception of representing others before the courts (unless they are also a licensed barrister).
Notaries Public (also called "notaries," "notarial officers," or "public notaries") hold an office which can trace its origins back to ancient Rome, when they were called scribae, tabellius or notarius. Their work would later be transcribed correctly in its entirety by a calligraphus. They are easily the oldest continuing branch of the legal profession worldwide.
The history of Notaries is set out in detail in Chapter 1 of Brooke's Notary (12th edition):
A notary, in almost all common law jurisdictions, is a qualified, experienced practitioner trained in the drafting and execution of legal documents. (A notable exception being 48 of the 50 U.S. States and some parts of Canada.) Traditionally, notaries recorded matters of judicial importance as well as private transactions or events where an officially authenticated record or a document drawn up with professional skill or knowledge was required. Specifically, the functions of notaries include the preparation of certain types of documents (including international contracts, deeds, wills and powers of attorney) and certification of their due execution, administering of oaths, witnessing affidavits and statutory declarations, certification of copy documents, noting and protesting of bills of exchange and the preparation of ships' protests.
Documents certified by notaries are sealed with the notary's seal or stamp and are recorded by the notary in a register (also called a "protocol") maintained and permanently kept by him or her. These are known as "notarial acts". In countries subscribing to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement for Legalization for Foreign Public Documents only one further act of certification is required, known as an apostille, and is issued by a government department (usually the Foreign Affairs Department or similar). For other countries an "authentication" or "legalization" must be issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry of the country from which the document is being sent or the Embassy, Consulate-General or High Commission of the country to which it is being sent.
After the passage of the 1533 Act, which was a direct result of the Reformation in England, all notary appointments were issued directly through the Court of Faculties. The Court of Faculties is attached to the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In England and Wales there are several classes of notaries. English notaries, who like solicitors, barristers, legal executives and licensed conveyancers are also "Commissioners for Oaths," also acquire the same powers as solicitors and other law practitioners, with the exception of the right to represent others before the courts (unless also members of the bar or admitted as a solicitor) once they are licensed or commissioned notaries.
There are also Scrivener notaries, who get their name from the Scriveners' Company; until 1999, when they lost this monopoly, they were the only notaries permitted to practise in the City of London. They used not to have to first qualify as solicitors, but they had knowledge of foreign laws and languages.
Currently to qualify as a Notary Public in England and Wales it is necessary to have taken a law degree or qualified as a solicitor or barrister in the past five years, and then to take a two year distance learning course while gaining practical experience: which would usually be with a solicitor notary. The few who go on to become Scrivener Notaries require further study of a foreign language and foreign law.
The other notaries in England are either ecclesiastical notaries whose functions are limited to the affairs of the Church of England or other qualified persons who are not trained as solicitors or barristers but satisfy the Master of the Faculties of the Archbishop of Canterbury that they possess an adequate understanding of the law. Both the latter two categories are required to pass examinations set by the Master of Faculties.
The regulation of notaries was modernized in the 1990s as a result of section 57 of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990.
The Notaries Society gives the number of notaries in England and Wales as "about 1000," all but 70 of whom are solicitors.
Whilst notaries in Scotland are always solicitors, the profession remains separate in that there are additional rules and regulations governing notaries and it is possible to be a solicitor, but not a notary. They are also separate from notaries in other jurisdictions of the United Kingdom.
The profession is administered by the Council of the Law Society of Scotland under the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1990.
In all Australian States and Territories (except Queensland) notaries public are appointed by the Supreme Court of the relevant State or Territory. Very few have been appointed as a notary for more than one State or Territory.
Many Australian notaries are lawyers but the overall number of lawyers who choose to become a notary is relatively low. For example, in South Australia (a State with a population of 1.5 million), of the over 2,500 lawyers in that state only about 100 are also notaries and most of those do not actively practice as such. In Melbourne, Victoria, in 2002 there were only 66 notaries for a city with a population of 3.5 million and only 90 for the entire state. Compare this with the United States where it has been estimated that there are over 3 million notaries for a nation with a population of 296 million.
As Justice Debelle of the Supreme Court of South Australia said in the case of In The Matter of an Application by Marilyn Reys Bos to be a Public Notary  SASC 320, delivered September 12, 2003, in refusing the application:
Historically there have been some very rare examples of patent attorneys or accountants being appointed, but that now seems to have ceased.
However, there are three significant differences between notaries and other lawyers.
Their principal duties include:
Although it was once usual for Australian notaries to use a red embossed seal it is now common for them to use a red inked stamp that contains the notary's full name and the words "notary public". It is also common for the seal or stamp to include the notary's chosen logo or symbol.
In South Australia and Scotland, it is acceptable for a notary to use the letters "NP" after their name. Thus a South Australian notary may have "John Smith LLB NP" or similar on his business card or letterhead.
Australian notaries do not hold "commissions" which can expire. Generally, once appointed they are authorized to act as a notary for life and can only be "struck off" the Roll of Notaries for proven misconduct. In certain States, for example, New South Wales, they cease to be qualified to continue as a Notary once they cease to hold a practising certificate as a legal practitioner.
All Australian jurisdictions also have Justices of the Peace (JP) or Commissioners for Affidavits who can witness affidavits or statutory declarations and certify documents. However they can only do so if the relevant affidavit, statutory declaration or copy document is to be used only in Australia rather than in a foreign country, with the possible exception of a few Commonwealth countries not including the United Kingdom or New Zealand except for very limited purposes. Justices of the Peace (JPs) are (usually) laypersons who have minimal, if any, training (depending on the jurisdiction) but are of proven good character. Therefore a US notary resembles an Australian JP rather than an Australian notary.
Unless excluded under dominion or colonial law, the Master of the Faculties formerly had authority to appoint notaries public in a dominion or colony. The admission of notaries in the Commonwealth was governed specifically by the Public Notaries Act 1833 (UK). The provisions of the Public Notaries Act 1801-43 requiring a notary to be a solicitor did not apply overseas, nor need a notary have a practicing certificate as a solicitor, or from the Court of Faculties.
The usual procedure followed is that the applicant lodges with the Court of Faculties a memorial counter-signed by local merchants, shipping companies, bankers and other persons of substance, which show the local need of a notary and the fitness of the applicant. They also lodge their certificate of admission as a solicitor. A fee accompanies the application. The applicant, with the support of two other notaries public, who vouch that the applicant is well skilled in the affairs of notarial concern, petitions the Master of the Faculties.
The chief consideration for the approval of an application is whether there is sufficient need in the district, regarding the convenience of bankers, ship-owners and merchants. The local society of notaries must be satisfied that a need exists for an additional notary in the area served by the applicant. Priority is given, as a matter of practice, to an applicant within the same firm, as a replacement in the case of the death of a notary, or where a practicing notary is reducing his or her workload because of age or infirmity.
The Master of the Faculties continues to appoint notaries overseas in the exercise of the general authorities granted by s 3 of the Ecclesiastical Licenses Act 1533 (Eng). In these cases he is guided by local considerations of public convenience.
In the United States a notary public is a person appointed by a state government (often the governor or the secretary of state of the state, or in some cases the state legislature. In Georgia, the Clerk of Superior Court in individual counties appoints the Notary Public commissions) to serve the public as an impartial witness. Since the notary is a state officer, whether the jurisdiction is common law or civil law is determined on a state-by-state basis; Louisiana is the only civil law state. In most states, only qualified persons can apply for such an appointment, called a commission. Qualifications vary from state to state, but states often bar people with certain types of criminal convictions and/or below a certain age from being appointed, and applicants usually must pass an examination covering notary practices and law. The material for such exams is typically contained in a booklet published by the state. Some states also require a bond or insurance.
Notaries in the United States are much less closely regulated than notaries in civil law jurisdictions or in most other common law countries, typically because U.S. notaries have less authority. In the United States, a non-attorney notary may not offer legal advice or prepare documents (with the exception of Louisiana) and cannot recommend how a person should sign a document or even what type of notarization is necessary. In many cases, a notary cannot authenticate a copy of a document. The most common notarial acts in the United States are the taking of acknowledgements and oaths. Unlike court reporters outside the United States, US court reporters are often notaries as this enables them to swear in witnesses (deponents) when they are taking depositions.
"An acknowledgment is a formal [oral] declaration before an authorized public officer. It is made by a person executing [signing] an instrument who states that it was his [or her] free act and deed." That is, the person signed it without undue influence and for the purposes detailed in it. A certificate of acknowledgment is a written statement signed (and in some jurisdictions, sealed) by the notary or other authorized official that serves to prove that the acknowledgment occurred. The form of the certificate varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but will be similar to the following:
On the ....day of .... in the year...before me, the undersigned, personally appeared ...personally known to me or proved to me on the basis of satisfactory evidence to be the individual(s) whose name(s) is (are) subscribed to the within instrument and acknowledged to me that he/she/they executed the same in his/her/their capacity(ies), and that by his/her/their signature(s) on the instrument, the individual(s), or the person upon behalf of which the individual(s) acted, executed the instrument.
A jurat is the official written statement by a notary public that he or she has administered and witnessed an oath or affirmation for an oath of office, or on an affidavit - that is, that a person has sworn to or affirmed the truth of information contained in a document, under penalty of perjury, whether that document is a lengthy deposition or a simple statement on an application form. The simplest form of jurat and the oath or affirmation administered by a notary are:
- Jurat: "Sworn to before me this ........ day of ........, 20 ......"
- Oath: "Do you solemnly swear that the contents of this affidavit subscribed by you is correct and true?"
- Affirmation (for those opposed to swearing oaths): "Do you solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm that the statements made by you are true and correct?"
In most cases, all of the acts of a notary must include a venue, or official listing of the place where they happened, usually in the form of the state and county, with the abbreviation "ss" for the Latin scilicet, "more particularly," often in this form:
State of .......))ss:County of.......)
Prior to sitting for the notary exam, one must complete a mandatory six-hour course of study This required course of study is conducted either in an online, home study, or in-person format via an approved notary education vendor Both prospective notaries as well as current notaries seeking reappointment must undergo an "expanded" F.B.I. and California Department of Justice background check.
Various statutes, rules, and regulations govern notaries public. California law sets maximum, but not minimum, fees for services related to notarial acts (e.g., per signature: acknowledgment $10, jurat $10, certified power of attorney $10, et cetera). A finger print (typically the right thumb) may be required in the notary journal based on the transaction in question (e.g., deed, quitclaim deed, deed of trust affecting real property, power of attorney document, et cetera). Documents with blank spaces cannot be notarized (a further anti-fraud measure). California explicitly prohibits notaries from using the literal Spanish translation of their title. The use of a notary seal is required.
An applicant for the notary public commission must also post a $5,000 bond, usually with an insurance company and pay an application fee of $10. The application is usually accompanied with an oath of office. If the Secretary of State's office approves the application, the Secretary of State then sends the commission to the clerk of the county where the applicant resides. If the applicant records the commission with the county clerk, he or she then receives the commission. Illinois law prohibits notaries from using the literal Spanish translation in their title and requires them to use a rubber stamp seal for their notarizations. The notary public can then perform his or her duties anywhere in the state, as long as the notary resides (or works or does business) in the county where he or she was appointed.
Nevada notary duties: administer oaths or affirmations; take acknowledgments; use of subscribing witness; certify copies; and execute jurats or take a verification upon oath or affirmation.
The State of Nevada Notary Division Page provides more information about duties, requirements, appointments, and classes.
Notaries in the state of New Jersey serve as impartial witnesses to the signing of documents, attests to the signature on the document, and may also administer oaths and affirmations. Seals are not required; many people prefer them and as a result, most notaries have seals in addition to stamps. Notaries may administer oaths and affirmations to public officials and officers of various organizations. They may also administer oaths and affirmations in order to execute jurats for affidavits/verifications, and to swear in witnesses.
Notaries are prohibited from pre-dating actions; lending notary equipment to someone else (stamps, seals, journals, etc); preparing legal documents or giving legal advice; appearing as a representative of another person in a legal proceeding. Notaries should also refrain from notarizing documents in which they have a personal interest.
By statute, New Jersey attorneys may administer oaths and affirmation, and witness documents.
New York notaries are empowered to administer oaths and affirmations (including oaths of office), to take affidavits and depositions, to receive and certify acknowledgments or proof of deeds, mortgages and powers of attorney and other instruments in writing; to demand acceptance or payment of foreign and inland bills of exchange, promissory notes and obligations in writing, and to protest these (that is, certify them) for non-acceptance or non-payment. They are not empowered to marry couples, their notarization of a will is insufficient to give the will legal force, and they are strictly forbidden to certify "true copies" of documents. Every county clerk's office in New York must have a notary public available to serve the public free of charge.
A notary in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is empowered to perform seven distinct official acts: take affidavits, verifications, acknowledgments and depositions, certify copies of documents, administer oaths and affirmations, and protest dishonored negotiable instruments. A notary is strictly prohibited from giving legal advice or drafting legal documents such as contracts, mortgages, leases, wills, powers of attorney, liens or bonds. Pennsylvania is one of the few states with a successful Electronic Notarization Initiative. For more information, visit the Secretary of the Commonwealth's website at http://www.dos.state.pa.us/notaries/.
A Virginia notary must either be a resident of Virginia or work in Virginia, and is authorized to acknowledge signatures, take oaths, and certify copies of non-government documents which are not otherwise available, e.g. a notary cannot certify a copy of a birth or death certificate since a certified copy of the document can be obtained from the issuing agency. Changes to the law effective July 1 2008 imposes certain new requirements; while seals are required & they must be legible. Also, the notary's registration number must appear on any document notarized. Changes to the law effective July 1 2008 will permit notarization of electronic signatures. This has been delayed by the Governor. His office is not appointing any electronic notaries until standards have developed for electronic notarization.
A Maryland requirement that to obtain a commission, a notary declare his belief in God, as required by the Maryland Constitution, was found by the United States Supreme Court in Torcaso v. Watkins, to be unconstitutional. Historically, some states required that a notary be a citizen of the United States. However, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Bernal v. Fainter (the Fainter case), declared that to be impermissible.
In the U.S., there are reports of notaries (or people claiming to be notaries) having taken advantage of the differing roles of notaries in common law and civil law jurisdictions to engage in the unauthorized practice of law. The victims of such scams are typically illegal immigrants from civil law countries who need assistance with, for example, their immigration papers and want to avoid hiring an attorney. Confusion often results from the mistaken premise that a notary public in the United States serves the same function as a Notario Público in Spanish-speaking countries (which are civil law countries, see below). Prosecutions in such cases are difficult, as the victims are often deported and thus unavailable to testify.
A Commissioned Officer in the United States Armed Forces is not considered a Notary; however, federal law allows a commissioned officer to certify documents and administer oaths. In addition to the powers granted by the federal government, some states have enacted laws granting notarial powers to commissioned officers.
This should be contrasted with the Latin American notario who may be similar to an attorney at law or lawyer. A French notaire, a German Notar and an Italian Notaio register wills and other documents, and authenticates transactions of real estate.
In the few United States jurisdictions where trained notaries are allowed (such as Puerto Rico), the practice of these jurists is limited to non-judicial legal advice, property conveyencing and legal drafting.
In addition to many well-known notaries public from the world of the law, there are several well-known notaries from other arenas of achievement. Klaus Hergescheimer of Massapequa, NY has the distinction of becoming the first notary to be licensed in all fifty states (a feat since duplicated several times by others), as well as numerous territories and trust possessions. Richard Nixon confidante Robert Abplanalp was a notary for many years, as were Fawn Hall, teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe, and former major league baseball pitcher Joe Moeller.
Upon the death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as President by his father, a Vermont notary public. However, as there was some controversy as to whether a state notary public had the authority to administer the presidential oath of office, President Coolidge took the oath, again, upon returning to Washington.