The role of a Notary is to ensure the proper identification of signers, and this responsibility is crucial. There are three main methods for achieving this, each with its own set of rules, procedures, and challenges.
Method 1: Identification Cards
One of the most common methods for verifying the identity of signers is by examining their identification cards. However, this process can be more complex than it appears due to the numerous types of government-issued IDs available and the fact that many U.S. residents lack the necessary identification.
Certain states, such as California and Florida, have established specific lists of acceptable IDs. Others have outlined the essential elements an ID must possess, allowing Notaries to accept any identification that meets these criteria. For instance, in Texas, a valid ID must be current, issued by either the federal government or a state government, and include a photograph and signature. Texas also permits Notaries to acknowledge a current foreign passport as a valid ID, but only for notarizations associated with residential real estate transactions.
In some states, there are no predefined lists or required elements for IDs, leaving it up to the discretion of the Notary to determine the acceptability of an ID. In such cases, the NNA advises adhering to The Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility (Standard III-B-1) when requesting identification.
Method 2: Personal Knowledge
Relying on “personal knowledge” means that you have a personal relationship with the signer and are confident in their identity.
In all states except California, Notaries are allowed to confirm the identity of signers based on personal knowledge. The specific guidelines for personal knowledge may vary from state to state. For instance, Texas permits notarizing for an individual whom the Notary is “personally known” to, but it doesn’t provide further details. Florida, on the other hand, defines personal knowledge as “having an acquaintance derived from association with the individual, which establishes the individual’s identity with at least a reasonable certainty.”
When you vouch for the signer’s identity through personal knowledge, it’s crucial to be absolutely sure. Making an error in this regard can lead to severe consequences, including potential criminal penalties.
Method 3: Credible Identifying Witnesses
In many states, you have the option to use one or two credible identifying witnesses to confirm a signer’s identity. With this method, a third party who knows the signer must be willing to vouch for their identity, essentially serving as a “human ID card” for the signer.
Some states require the identifying witness to be familiar with both the signer and the Notary. However, other states don’t have this requirement as long as the identifying witnesses can provide satisfactory proof of their own identity, such as an acceptable ID card (Texas updated its laws in 2018 to allow credible identifying witnesses to provide qualifying ID to the Notary, in addition to credible witnesses who are personally known to the Notary).
Before accepting credible witnesses as proof of identity, it’s essential to check your state’s laws. Some states do not permit the use of credible identifying witnesses for notarizations. If your state allows credible witnesses, be sure to adhere to all your state’s requirements, including administering an oath or affirmation to the witness.
Notaries in all states have a legal obligation to verify the identity of signers for specific notarial acts, and failing to do so properly can expose them to civil, criminal, and administrative liability.