Notaries public are state-licensed professionals who act as impartial and accountable witnesses, primarily to the signing and duplication of documents such as wills, contracts, mortgages and other legally-binding documents. Each state sets its own qualifications for notaries public, so there isn't a single, national set of prerequisites, but they're similar enough to draw some broad generalizations.
A Basic Education
In most states a notary must have at least a high school education, though in practice many have a college education or professional certification. Some states, such as California, Missouri and Nevada, require notary candidates to complete a formal training program. These training programs typically consist of just a few hours of instruction on the notary's legal and ethical obligations, and the limitations of the notary's role. Most are delivered in person in a classroom, although online versions of the program are available in some jurisdictions. Some states don't demand formal training, but require candidates to master a notary's handbook before they're licensed.
A State License
After completing any training or educational requirements, candidates must apply for a state license. The process is usually administered by the secretary of state or the governor's office. Candidates must declare any criminal convictions, must be over the age of 18, and must take an oath to follow the state's code of ethical conduct for notaries. Some states require notaries to recertify on a periodic basis, or to maintain their license status through continuing education. An annual renewal fee is also standard.
In a few states, such as Louisiana, the notary's signature is considered to be his seal. More often, the state issues an official seal to each newly-licensed notary public. In some cases it's a rubber stamp, while other jurisdictions require the use of an embosser. When the notary witnesses a signature, administers an oath or verifies a true copy of a document, the document must be stamped or embossed and then signed by the notary. If the stamp is lost or stolen, the notary must report it immediately. Some states require the notary to keep a log of every transaction, for audit and verification purposes, and it's good practice even when not legally required.
As with most other professionals, notaries are well advised to purchase professional liability insurance. It's usually referred to as "E&O" coverage, because it protects the notary from lawsuits arising out of any errors or omissions. Notaries adhering strictly to their state's professional guidelines are at less risk, but there's always the possibility of error or a malicious lawsuit.
After earning their state-issued license, notaries still need to develop a clientele. Some treat their notary duties as a secondary income, practicing another profession full time and acting as a notary when opportunities arise. Others set up to practice primarily as notaries, using advertising, social media or networking with other professionals such as lawyers, realtors and accountants to bring in clients. Most states impose a maximum fee for notary services, ranging from as high as $10 to as low as 50 cents per signature, at the time of publication. Earning a viable income at those rates requires a large and steady volume of business.
- National Notary Association: What Is a Notary?
- National Notary Association: The Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility
- American Society of Notaries: Notary Education and Exam Info
- American Society of Notaries: How to Become a Notary -- Frequently Asked Questions
- National Notary Association: Bonds & Insurance -- Frequently Asked Questions
- Entrepreneur: Business Idea Center -- Notary Public
- National Association of Legal Secretaries: Notary Public Legal Responsibility & Liability
- American Society of Notaries: Basic Notarial Duties
- National Notary Association: What Is a Notary Public?
- Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images