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Can a Notary Public Refuse to Notarize?

posted May 29, 2016, 5:09 PM by AG Pro Serve Intl.

Are you one of the people who are interested in becoming a notary but think that it is too involved, worry about legal issues, or that you cannot set your hours, or refuse to perform a notarization because you are a public official, etc.? If so, let me help you understand some things about this office that may alleviate your worries and perhaps set you on your way to becoming one.

As a Public official, notaries may not refuse clients based on their race, religion or lifestyle, gender, etc. , BUT there are some instances when a notary not only can but should refuse to notarize a document. What are those instances, you ask? Well, let me explain some of them; knowing this beforehand may save you time as a client, and as an ethical notary-to-be or a current notary, it may save your commission, reputation, legal issues, and money, perhaps, lots of money! I will address Florida particularly, but I do believe most of those are applicable in all states.

Reasons due to restrictions, legal requirements, ethics, etc. as to why notaries may, actually should, refuse to provide service set forth in sections 117.05 and 117.107, Florida Statutes (related primarily to taking acknowledgments & administering oaths – there are other times when a notary should not provide service aside from these, mostly related to attesting to photocopies & performing marriage ceremonies; please refer to my previous post “What Can a Notary do or Cannot Do?”):

  • When they cannot verify identity or the identification is not acceptable, or when they do not personally know the signer(s)
  • Signer(s) is not present (in person) even if the person with the document swears the signer did sign it
  • Signer(s) is an immediate family member: spouse, son, daughter, mother or father
  • Signer(s) appears to be coerced, under duress
  • Signer(s) does not understand the content (IF you are not a lawyer, you may not advise or interpret the content, etc. Simply refer the signer to seek one) or may be mentally impaired (drunk, under medication-sedated,…) or has been adjudicated mentally incapacitated to date
  • The notary(s) has self-interest in the transaction (Notaries must be impartial.)
  • Signer(s) does not speak English and there is no one to translate the document into a language the signer(s) understands (Ex.: if a person brings me a document written in Portuguese, I could translate it, but the person would have to take it to another notary to notarize the signature of the translator, in this case, me since I would not be able to notarize my own.)
  •  The document is blank or incomplete
  • The document does not have a prepared notary certificate, and the signer cannot tell the notary what notarial act is required (It is not part of the duty of notaries to tell a client which notarial act he or she needs; in fact, notaries cannot advise them on that. Refer them to an attorney or to seek one.)
  • The notary knows or has suspicions to believe that the transaction is unlawful, false, or deceptive. So he or she can refuse to notarize or be a witness for it
  • You are a notary for an employer and they set parameters for when you can notarize within working hours since it might not be your primary focus/duty

Some of the situations above are prohibited by law; others are precautions notaries should take, and the ones below are also situations in which notaries can refuse to perform a notarization:

  • Client(s) cannot pay the fees – unless if you feel charitable to not charge
  • It is after regular working hours, a holiday, the notary is busy with other work/activities, or has to travel to another location - Notaries are people and sometimes they have a life, too :-)
  • Notary would be inconvenienced or is sick – because sometimes we also have lives, we’re a subject to being sick and have personal issues with our children, pets,… including ourselves ;-)
  • Notary does not feel comfortable with the request – trust your instinct
  • Signer is a minor
  • The document is in a language the signer does not understand

So if you had any major concerns about the office of a notary public, you should feel a bit relieved now. Even though notaries have major responsibilities to perform duties ethically and fair, you can see that it is not out of this world and you have control over a lot of situations. However, whatever job you are in right now, don’t you also have responsibilities and a duty to perform it ethically and make good judgment calls (or in life in general)? Hopefully the answer is yes!

Now… let’s see how notaries can refuse to notarize in those situations. This is how the Department of State for FL suggests it should be done:

A refusal to notarize may be viewed as an inconvenience to the signer or may be misinterpreted as unlawful discrimination. Therefore, notaries should be careful to refuse in a tactful manner. Tactfulness should not be a problem when the refusal is based on one of the statutory prohibitions, such as when the document is incomplete. The notary should explain that the law prohibits notarizing in that situation.

However, the situations in which a notary should refuse for precautionary reasons may be more difficult to explain. For example, suppose a notary suspects that the signer is being coerced or that the transaction may be illegal. In such situations, it may be best for notaries to simply explain that they are not comfortable with notarizing that document. No further explanation is necessary. Another good approach is for the notary to state that he or she is not familiar with the type of document involved. It is best not to be drawn into a debate regarding the refusal.

( - How to Refuse; emphasis added)

So even though some people mistakenly believe that notaries cannot refuse to perform a notary act for any legitimate request and should be available to them any time, anywhere, …. well, that is not quite the case. You can become a notary public (and Signing Agent) to earn extra money as a part-time job or when-you-can-do job since you are basically self-employed (unless you are a notary for your job). People cannot access many government departments/officials unless it is within the established hours; therefore, notaries can also establish their own hours, turn down a job because they are too busy with other jobs, are busy with personal issues, sick, away, etc., and can indeed refuse to notarize in many circumstances that are non-discriminatory.

To read official information and the full restrictions thoroughly, you may access these sites: Frequently Asked Questions for Florida Notaries or FL Governor’s Reference Manual for Notaries. Check with your state for their own restrictions, rules, etc.

For people contemplating in becoming notaries, I hope to have cleared many doubts, concerns, fears that you might have so that you understand better notaries limitations and rights as well!

For clients, I hope to have cleared up some erroneous ideas about notaries that can save you time and also understand their limitations and the circumstances in which they cannot help you.

by Alessandra Jackson

AG Pro Serve Intl.