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If you need to get something notarized, you may know that a notary needs to witness your signing of a document before stamping it. While that might be the literal process, what does a notary do? The process is actually much more complex than it may seem at first.

The Purpose of Notarized Documents

When you make major changes to your financial accounts, work with legal documents, or buy a house, you may need to get specific documents notarized.

Notarized documents are those in which a signature has been validated as legitimate. Electronic signatures, or any paperwork you sign electronically by typing your name or drawing your signature with your finger, are becoming more popular. However, there are still plenty of documents where this type of signature isn't accepted.

If you signed a contract for a mortgage by typing your name into a field on a form and then printing out the document, it might not hold up in a legal proceeding. Sometimes, even signatures on a physical piece of paper with ink aren't sufficient. This is where a notary comes in.

What Does a Notary Do?

Again, a notarized document is one where the signature is verified as legitimate. And a notary is the person who oversees that verification process. Notaries witness the signing of documents as part of their duties, but they also:

  • Verify the identity of the person signing.
  • Ensure the person signing is doing so of their own free will and that they are not under pressure from third parties to sign the paperwork.
  • Check that the person signing understands and agrees to what the document contains by putting their signature on paper.

These actions help prevent fraud and illegal activity, which is why a notary is part of the process when you have to sign binding documents and contracts. Notaries represent the state they are notarized in, and requirements to hold the title vary from region to region. In general, you have to meet your state's specific qualifications, fill out an application form, and pay a fee. You might have to go through some additional training or education, and some states require an exam or background check.

When to Use a Notary

In most cases, the institutions you work with — whether they're banks and financial institutions, law offices, or medical professionals — will let you know when a notarized document is required. When you need one, you'll have to go to a notary so they can verify your identity and signature to ensure that the document is legitimate.

Closing on a house is probably the most common event in which you need a notary, but you might also need to use their services if you change your name or make drastic changes to financial accounts.

You can go to your local bank or credit union when you need to notarize a document. Most have at least one employee who is certified as a notary who can help you, and there's often no charge for the service if you have an account with the bank. Shipping stores and office supply stores may also have notaries on staff who can help.

Before you go, make sure you bring official identification to show the notary. A government-issued ID is usually enough and you should only need one form of identification unless otherwise requested. Bring the documents that you need to sign, but don't sign them until you're with the notary. Again, the point of a notary is to make sure your signature is legitimate and that you're signing the document freely.

It might also be smart to bring cash to pay any fees, as well, which are usually $5 to $20 — but again, many banks offer this service for free for account holders, so check with your financial institution first.

This information and recommendations contained herein are compiled from sources deemed reliable, but are not represented to be accurate or complete. In providing this information, neither KeyBank nor its affiliates are acting as your agent or are offering any tax, accounting, or legal advice.

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