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Changes In The Notary Business: Part 1 – The Big Picture

A guest post from Marc Aronson of the Pennsylvania Association of Notaries. Let us know what you think.

What have notaries done since the beginning of notarial time?

  • Identified their customer,

  • Observed the customer’s Signature being affixed to a document (and thereby vouched that this really was the customer’s autograph), and

  • As a clerk, provided the Document (notarial certificate) necessary to transact business.

All of these duties have been impacted by the relatively recent developments in the electronic age.



1. The notary’s ability to identify the customer: In 1639, when the first notary was appointed in Connecticut, the notary identified you by 1) personal knowledge, 2) testimony of a credible third party (someone the notary knew and trusted), or 3) a formal letter of introduction.

(Even an illiterate population could recognize the official nature of a wax seal and ribbon applied to a document. These items signified that the person appearing before the notary had the approval of someone important who was vouching for the person’s identity.)

Today, a third party need not rely on a notary, as there are many ways to identify a stranger. While letters of introduction are no longer used in the modern age as a means of verifying identity, personal knowledge still works, as does reliance on a credible witness (where and when permitted).


  • Verification of identity relies on ownership of specific information, such as passwords or answers to questions (called Knowledge-Based Authentication or KBA); a variety of biometrics including scans of the body, face, retina, iris, vein patterns, fingerprints, and heart rhythm; and personal characteristics such as typing rhythm and speed, handwriting pressure,  direction and speed, or voice recognition patterns.

  • An individual may possess one or more forms of identity cards containing bar codes, QR codes, magnetic strips, holograms, tactile features, pictures of various types and quality, computer chips, and other apparent or invisible security and identity features.

  • Identity may also be proven by third-party identity proofers and others who are trained to determine who you are by researching your past, both on paper and in the ‘bread crumbs’ you leave behind on your travels through cyberspace.

2. Over centuries, the basic function overtook the form of a signature. An individual’s signature used to be an indication of education (as the lower classes could not write, or write legibly), and status in the community. A sweeping “John Hancock” spoke of the individual’s character and importance.

When I was young and needed money, I went to a bank and cashed a check. My endorsement signature was compared to the signature on file when I opened the account and I was given money over the counter. Now my “signature” is a four-digit personal identification number (PIN) that represents who the bank thinks I am (it’s good enough for them) and I can get my money out of a machine in the middle of the night, in any city, state or country where I happen to be.

In the electronic age, the youngest generation is no longer being taught to write cursively or “longhand” but they learn how to type on a keyboard before kindergarten. Those of the Millennial generation, my 25-year-old son’s age, may know how to sign their names, but generally they have no need to do so. Business transactions are done online, through apps on a tablet or smartphone. Their signatures may be thumbprints or other biometric representations. If they complete a form on a computer—for example, a fillable PDF—they can pick from among a number of representations of what they want their signature to look like today, or even this hour or this minute. The function of the signature remains the same but the form is no longer relevant.

ESIGN severed the form of a signature from its function by defining an electronic signature as “a sound, symbol or process” applied to an electronic document in an electronic transaction. None of these signatures may look anything like the signature on the identity cards we carry in our wallets. How is the notary to compare one to the other?


3. Even as the use of electronic signatures has increased, the need for a notary who authenticates the signature has declined. A document created on a computer can be signed with an electronic sound, symbol or process. Even if there is a need—either real or imagined—for authenticating the signature, it is unlikely that electronic notarization can be easily accomplished. The majority of states have not provided notaries with direction or education on electronic notarization. States that have enabled electronic notarization have taken different paths to achieve that goal. The result is confusion in the notary community as to what may or may not be acceptable from state to state.

On the commercial side, businesses frequently opt to eliminate the expense of time and money to require notarization. Forms that were notarized in the past are being scrutinized to determine whether notarization is still relevant or beneficial. Absent a regulatory or legal requirement for notarization (for example, on recordable documents), or a lot of money involved in the transaction, documents are not notarized.

I do not predict the demise of the office of notary public for many, many generations but only if the notarial community adapts to change and adopts procedures and policies for electronically enabled notarizations. Just as technology has evolved, the notary’s tools for examining identity, authenticating signatures and working with documents electronically must evolve as well.

  • LonSabala4

    My colleagues wanted a form this month and were told about a website that has a searchable forms database . If others require it too , here’s

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