Why Documents Are Notarized

The practice of having trusted third parties acknowledge the signature of parties to a transaction originated in Ancient Rome.  Very few people at that time could read or write and went to a “Notarius” (latin for notetaker) to write down their oral agreements, to acknowledge that the parties had appeared and made the agreement and to keep the written record for safekeeping.  Later, notaries, who were employees of the crown, accompanied Columbus and other Spanish explorers on their voyages to insure that all discovered or captured treasures were correctly tallied so that the monarchs would get their fair share.    They also served in key administrative capacities in various colonies.   In American colonial times notaries served on both sides of the Atlantic as the eyes and ears of the merchants who could rely on their reports of damage to ship or cargo and to authenticate the bills of exchange used in trade.

In some parts of the world, notaries act more like attorneys, giving advice to clients and drawing up documents.  Since the United States is composed of regions that were obtained from different colonial powers: England in the East, Spain in the west and France in Louisiana, the powers of notaries are slightly different.  In Louisiana notaries perform functions that in other states are considered to be the practice of law.  

While today we are used to finding and getting copies of documents with County Recorders, who are local government officials, in previous times notaries (who today have “public” affixed to their title but who operate in a private capacity commissioned by the state) kept the originals of documents which they had acknowledged.  The notary was required to provide certified copies for a fee and to keep a “record” of those documents (now the County Recorder’s index).   That earlier record book is today the notary journal in which all transactions must be noted with the signature and, in California, the thumbprint of parties to real property transactions. 

Notaries continue to play an important role in their capacity of acknowledging documents since County Recorders are prohibited by law from accepting most documents for recording unless they are acknowledged (notarized), the primary exceptions being certified court documents and federal, state and local tax liens.  By certifying that the parties to the transaction actually appeared and identified themselves, the notary’s acknowledgment is an effective fraud preventive.   The possibility of fraud is further lessened by the notary’s duty to assure that the parties entered into the transaction knowingly and that they are aware of the significance of the document. Without the service of notaries, courts could be overwhelmed with litigation to nullify transactions based on allegations of forgery or parties alleging lack of understanding of their actions.

 Should you have any questions please contact Napa County Assessor-Recorder-County Clerk John Tuteur at 707.253.4459 or by e-mail [email protected].   More articles can be found at https://www.countyofnapa.org/149/Assessor.