What is notarization in the United States?

If you buy a vehicle in the United States, you'll probably need to have a document "notarized."


What is notarization in the United States, and how does it work?



Notaries deter fraud and make sure documents are signed correctly

Notaries witness a person sign an official document (such as a will, a mortgage, or a power of attorney) to ensure:

  • Identity - the signer must be who they say they are,

  • Competence - the signer must be of sound mind, not under the influence of mind-altering substances, and understand what they're signing, and

  • Volition - the signer must sign the document of his own free will.

The notary then stamps and signs your document, making it official.



The Notary Block

Any document with a Notary Block is not valid without a notarization.


There is no standard format for the Notary Block, but they usually look something like this:




The signer must "appear before the notary"

The notary function is a very, very old one. 


Leonardo Da Vinci's dad was a notary; the British notarial society, Worshipful Company of Scriveners, was founded in 1373. 


One of the core principles of notarization is that the principal must appear before a notary. 


A profession this old took that principle quite literally - no telecoms allowed!



Traditional notarization

Banks, auto dealers, and law firms usually have a notary on staff.  Since customers generally appear in person at these businesses, notarization can be done easily.



Remote Online Notarizations are a recent innovation

In 2011, Virginia became the first state to allow Remote Online Notarization (RON), a notarization that takes place over "two-way audio/video technology." 


A handful of other states (including Montana) enacted RON laws, but by the start of 2020, the number of states that accepted RON's was less than ten.


The Covid pandemic made it impossible to carry out traditional notarizations, leaving important documents (such as real estate transactions and wills) unable to be completed.  Many states enacted emergency legislation that permitted the use of RON's.


RON laws in the United States are currently a patchwork of emergency, temporary and permanent measures.



RON service providers are not yet universally accepted

Currently, each state that accepts remote online notarizations maintains its own "whitelist" of acceptable service providers.


If a document must be submitted to a state, it must be notarized by a remote online notarization service that state accepts.




*Nerd Note: The Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section IV, which reads "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State." This was further codified into law by the Uniform Acknowledgements Act of 1892, which explicitly confirmed that notarial acts in any one State have the same legal standing in all States.