Notary public using a stamp to provide a seal for a document.

Common Questions About Notaries and Witnesses

Last Updated: October 17, 2023

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Key Takeaways:

  • A notary public attests to a document’s authenticity by verifying the signatures and identities of people signing legal documents.
  • A witness is a neutral third party who watches you sign a document and then signs it too, confirming your identity and verifying that no forgery occurred.
  • Some documents legally require witnessing and notarization in order for them to be binding and enforceable.

When you want to make a document effective, you typically sign on the dotted line and have yourself a done deal. However, sometimes your signature isn’t enough.

Some documents require an added layer of assurance and validity. This is when notaries and witnesses step in.

The purposes of and differences between notaries and witnesses can get a little confusing. So here are some answers to common questions about witnesses and notaries to help you confidently execute your next document.

What is a notary?

A notary public is a state-appointed official with authority to notarize documents. They do this by formally witnessing and certifying signatures to verify the identities of the parties involved in a contract and ensure the signers understand which document they are signing. They’ll then stamp their notary seal near their notary signature.

Notaries also perform a variety of other tasks, like administering oaths and affirmations and certifying copies of documents. They don’t always need to witness a document’s signing as long as they can verify the identities of the signees.

As a state representative, it’s crucial that a notary doesn’t let self-interest interfere with their responsibilities. Notaries need to be impartial, professional, and exercise good judgment.

A notary has the right to refuse services if they:
  • Suspect fraud
  • Are unsure of a signer’s identity
  • Believe that one party has been coerced into signing the document
  • Suspect either party doesn’t understand the agreement

What’s the purpose of a notary public?

A notary public attests to a document’s authenticity and proper execution.

Some financial institutions require notarized legal documents in order to deter fraud. For example, when creating a Power of Attorney, the notary checks the identity of the people involved and makes sure they each sign the agreement willingly.

Another benefit of using a notary is that in most jurisdictions the signers don’t have to testify in court to verify their signatures, as the notary has confirmed that the signatures belong to the people whose names appear on the document

Can I notarize a document online?

Yes, you can notarize a document online, rather than in person. LawDepot’s Online Notary allows you to upload your document in any state and remotely connect with a notary public.

What are witnesses, and what do they do?

Witnesses aren’t always necessary, but you’ll likely need one if you’re creating a document requiring a notary.

A witness is a neutral third party who watches the parties sign their legal document. They’re brought in to confirm the identities of all the signers and that no forgery occurred. After that, they sign the document too.

Your witness must be at least 18 years old and of sound mind when witnessing a document’s execution. They also can’t be in a position to benefit from the contract or be related to one of the signers. If they are, they’re creating a conflict of interest.

Even if your document doesn’t require a witness, it doesn’t hurt to include one because they can confirm the validity of the signatures if they’re ever disputed.

Can a notary be a witness?

A certified notary can usually be a witness, but this practice is generally discouraged.
However, in limited circumstances, a notary may act as a special type of witness, called a signature witness. Five states, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina, require signature witnesses on deeds or mortgages related to real property (e.g. land or real estate). All these states require two witnesses, except Georgia. In Georgia and Louisiana, a notary may not act as a signature witness.
Most states don’t allow a notary to double duty as a notary and a witness for the same document. If you have a notary acting as a witness, you’ll need a second one to notarize the document.

There are some rare exceptions to this rule, though. For example, Florida, Connecticut, and South Carolina allow notary publics to notarize and witness a document.

When do I need notaries and witnesses for my document?

You’ll usually need to have your document notarized and witnessed if it’s related to matters concerning the court system, banks, or other financial institutions.

Some of the most common documents that get notarized include:
These documents require notarization because they’re used to deal with finances, property, estates, and sworn statements, and it’s essential that no fraud occurs.

Some states have specific legal forms (e.g., a Will) that have particular signing requirements regarding the number of witnesses you must have. Whether or not you need one will depend on the document and your jurisdiction.

How much does a notary cost?

The cost of a notary depends on the document you’re looking to notarize, the notary you choose, and the state in which you are executing the document. Most states set a maximum fee for what notaries can charge.

If you’d like to use LawDepot’s Online Notary, the price is $25 for the first notarization seal and $10 for each additional seal.

Where do I find a notary?

Notary publics can typically be found at businesses that offer automobile title transfers, financial services, or shipping services. If you’re looking to find a notary in your area, check any of the following resources:
  • Online notary services
  • Banks
  • Registry offices
  • Town or city hall
  • Courthouse
  • Printing/shipping stores
  • Military bases
  • College or university campuses
  • Law firms or offices
  • Libraries

How do I become a notary?

To become a notary, you must meet your state’s qualifications. These can usually be found on your Secretary of State’s website.

The requirements for being a notary vary between states. However, a general requirement for being a notary is to be at least 18 years old, have no criminal record, and reside in the state they’re acting in.

If you meet the qualifications, you must submit an application and pay a state filing fee.

Depending on your state, there may be additional steps, such as:
  • Completing a background check
  • Getting a surety bond
  • Receiving training
  • Passing an exam administered by the state
To become an online notary, you need to meet the standard requirements of any public notary in your state. After that, you must fill out a notary commission application and register to perform remote online notarizations.

Some states require you to take remote online notarization (RON) training and to pass an exam. You may also need a surety bond or errors and omission insurance because any notary mistakes can cause serious harm to a signer. Bonds and insurance can offer protection to the notary and the signer.

Is an acknowledgment the same as witnessing?

It’s common for people to confuse acknowledgements with the act of witnessing. Although they’re both related to the signing of documents, they serve very different purposes.

Witnesses confirm the identities of the parties and ensure there’s no forgery when signing a document.

Acknowledgments don’t involve witnesses. They’re an act between the notary and the signee. For an acknowledgment to occur, the signer must declare to the notary that they’re willing to sign the document for its intended purpose. They also need to state that the signature on the document is theirs.

Executing documents using notaries and witnesses

Whether it’s a loan, purchase, or separation of assets, signing a legal document brings its terms into effect. Notaries and witnesses observe a document’s signing and confirm each signer’s identity.

Ensure you’re signing a document according to the requirements of your state law and the document itself. Many banks and other institutions have their own signing policies, so if they require notarization, contact a notary for their services.