Why Legal Professionals Must Take The Notary Seal Seriously
By Michael Closen
We sometimes forget that our seals of office serve a significant purpose. The seal is such a key feature of notarization that the Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility specifically addresses it, as follows: “The Notary shall affix a seal on every notarized document and not allow this universally recognized symbol of office to be used by another or in an endorsement or promotion.” This ethical obligation applies to all Notaries, even those in states that do not at present statutorily require their Notaries to affix seal impressions on documents, for several reasons.
First, affixing a seal as part of the notarization of a signature on a document constitutes a tangible link between today’s Notaries and those dating to ancient Rome, early Europe and colonial America. The office of Notary in those eras was a post of prominence, occupied by an individual of consequence and honor in the community. All of those historic Notaries utilized a seal in performing their official acts, and the continued use of the modern ink-stamp seal maintains this tradition. Tradition, and the honor, integrity and respect that go hand-in-hand with it, are important.
Second, notarization is not trivial; it is not a mere technicality. The underlying transactions that are involved in many notarizations are of great significance to the document signers. The Notary’s manner should reflect the importance of the occasion, and accordingly a proper sense of decorum and ceremony should be instilled to help assure that the signer knows what he or she is undertaking. The use of the “extra” feature of a seal adds a dimension to the notarial ceremony.
Third, the presence of the Notary seal creates one more obstacle in the way of would-be wrongdoers bent on document fraud. Imperfect tampering with or reproduction of a Notary seal impression may expose the attempt to defraud. Indeed, if the wrongdoers obtain or counterfeit a false Notary seal, in most jurisdictions that misconduct will constitute a separate crime for which they could be prosecuted.
Fourth, a valuable purpose is served by the seal impression on a document in those jurisdictions which require the Notary commission expiration date to be imprinted as part of the text of the seal. With more than four million Notaries in this country, thousands of Notary commissions expire every day, and not all Notaries independently remember their commission expiration dates. If the expiration date appears as part of the language of the seal, there is a greater chance that either the Notary or someone else at the notarization ceremony will notice if the unfortunate occurrence has taken place that the Notary’s commission has ended. Then, another qualified Notary may be found to perform the notarization in a timely fashion.
Fifth, in jurisdictions which require personal identification information in the text of the seal, such as the name of the Notary and the Notary commission number, the seal provides an important record. Sometimes, Notaries will not be personally known to document signers, or remembered by those signers months or years later if they need to contact the Notaries. With the information contained in some Notary seals, Notaries can be identified and then located if circumstances warrant those steps.
Sixth, the affixation of a Notary seal provides a visible sign of a document’s acceptability. In our highly fluid and mobile world, many documents travel across state and national borders, and are then presented for recording or to serve as evidence, or otherwise sought to be recognized by business or governmental agents. If a document bears an easily recognized notarization, it will be more readily accepted and approved.
Notaries in states that do not require seals are not prohibited from using them as part of the notarization process, and hopefully are abiding by their ethical duty to affix a seal for all official acts.
Michael Closen is Professor Emeritus at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois. A respected consultant on model Notary statutes and legislation, Closen served on the drafting committees for the 1998 Notary Public Code of Professional Responsibility, the 2002 Model Notary Act, and the 2010 Model Notary Act.