What is a notary ?

JANUARY 22, 2022 by kal

If you tell someone that you are a Notary Public, you can often expect that they will nod knowingly, as if they are fully aware of what that means. Often, they don’t really have a clue, other than that is “someone who stamps documents.”  Why they are stamped and what is involved is not as well-known by the general public. Some will admit that they don’t know and will come right out and ask you, “What Does a Notary Public Do?” To answer that question, you have to first understand what a Notary Public IS.

A Notary Public is an Official Witness to the free and willing signing of one or more documents by one or more people whose identity they have verified. In most cases, the document is signed in their presence; in some, it is signed first and then brought to the Notary Public by the signer, who will then acknowledge to the Notary that they signed it.

So, what a Notary Public does is

1) verify the identity of the signer(s) who appear before them;

2) have enough of a conversation with the signer(s) to be reasonably sure they are signing freely and willingly;

3) witness the signer(s) signing the document(s);

4) administer an oath to the signer(s) if one is required by the document;

5) verify that all the Notary-specific elements of the document are present, correct any that are incorrect, complete any that are incomplete, and add any that are missing; and

6) sign the document in the place designated for their signature.

7) If their state requires it, the Notary Public will also place their official seal on the document.

8) In many states, the Notary Public will record the details of the Notary act they just completed in their Notary Journal and have the signer of the document sign the Journal. In some states, they also get a thumbprint of the signer in their Journal. Even if the State does not require the use of a Notary Journal, it is considered a Best Practice to do so.

The purpose of all of this activity is to add a level of trust to the document, to show that it was executed in such a way that it is binding upon the parties whose names appear in it. A Notarized document is taken as evidence that those whose names appear in it and who signed it chose to do what the document says they will do, to authorize what it says is authorized, or to verify under oath that the statements of facts in it are true so far as the signer knows.

The Official Witness role is standard in every state of the USA. In some states, a Notary Public may also have the authority to certify copies and/or to officiate at weddings. In Louisiana, a Notary Public can draft legal documents, which is not allowed in other states.  

Each of the elements in this description will be explored further in upcoming articles here on the American Association of Notaries website. If you need a Notary Journal or Notary Seal stamp, please see the store at

Tim Gatewood, Contributing Editor with the American Association of Notaries