Notaries need to know who's who
FARGO -- Who are you?
That question defines what it is to be a notary public, according to Lori DeKeyser, who has been a notary for about six years at Union State Bank in Fargo.
Basically, she said, the job of a notary is to make sure the people who sign a document in the notary's presence are who they say they are.
If a notary is satisfied that's the case, the document gets the notary's stamp.
DeKeyser does most of her notarizing for bank customers, but she also notarizes documents for the general public.
Some people who bring her forms and documents ask for advice on whether it's the proper document for what they want to accomplish, or they have other questions they'd like DeKeyser to answer.
All of which is beyond the scope of what a notary is supposed to do, according to DeKeyser.
"We just say, 'Yep, I've got your ID. That's your signature and I'm notarizing that you've signed it. That's the extent of it,'" DeKeyser said.
The same goes for those who want to provide a lengthy explanation of what's in the documents they want notarized.
"I don't really want to know," said DeKeyser, one of more than 13,000 notaries in North Dakota, many of whom work in banks, law offices and other places where document processing is a big part of what the businesses do.
While it is true that notaries literally rubber-stamp things, their task is more than a formality, according to Al Jaeger, North Dakota's secretary of state, whose office commissions notaries and hands out punishments when problems with a notary come to light.
"When you are commissioned as a notary public, you actually are becoming an officer of the state," Jaeger said.
"While they're not state employees, they do take an oath of office and their first allegiance as a notary is not to their employer, but to the state notary law," said Jaeger, who said he takes every opportunity to impress upon notaries the importance of what they do.
A newsletter published by his office, called "Notary Notes," is one way to do that, Jaeger said.
The newsletter usually includes a summary of disciplinary actions that have been doled out to notaries who didn't take their job as seriously as they might have.
The September 2012 newsletter states that 176 reprimands were issued between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012.
Jaeger said when a problem with a notary is discovered, individuals are often given a choice of taking a suspension, or paying a fine.
Most fines are in the $50 to $100 range, but they can be as high as $150. Suspensions typically are no longer than a few months.
Notary violations can include things like notarizing a document with no signature; not witnessing the signature of the person whose signature is being notarized and notarizing documents before the notary's commission date or after a notary's commission expires.
Rarely does punishment reach the level of revoking a notary's commission, but it does happen, Jaeger said, usually because of some illegality, such as fraud.
One thing about the violations his office deals with: almost all are discovered in documents submitted to the Secretary of State's Office, or the Office of the Attorney General.
Few violations, Jaeger said, are reported by sources outside of his office.
"I try to emphasize that this isn't just a clerical duty, this is something of importance," said Jaeger, whose newsletter usually includes a paragraph or two that read something like this:
"Notaries do not simply perform meaningless clerical functions. They perform an essential service to the public.
"Always remember that you are an important officer of the state and people depend on you to perform your service as a notary truthfully and with integrity."
Jaeger said a notary's job, on one level, is simple: determine that the individual affixing his signature to a document is who he says he is and that it is being done by the person's own free will.
"They actually need to see the signature is being affixed in their presence," Jaeger said.
Jaeger said the number of active notaries has increased from 13,125 in June 2011 to 13,877 today.
"So, it has climbed a little bit, and I would suspect some of that is a reflection of the state's economy; there are more businesses, there is more need for notaries," he said.
The Minnesota Secretary of State's Office couldn't supply a number for how many notaries are in the state, but the agency's website does provide numbers for each county.
In Clay County, the number of active notaries is 361.
One of them is Shannon Morin, who works in the Clay County Auditor's Office and has been a notary almost six years.
A good share of her notary work stems from courthouse business, but she will sometimes handle requests from the general public.
For the most part, the requests are not a problem.
But, Morin added, "if there's something we're uncomfortable with, we just refuse to do it."
That has only happened maybe once or twice, she said.
"I had one (case) that they were giving power of attorney to their kids on a piece of scratch paper," Morin said.
Sometimes, it's the notary's identity that needs verifying, according to Clay County Recorder Bonnie Rehder, whose office charges a $5 fee to verify a notary's bona fides.
"Maybe somebody is doing an overseas adoption and the other country will require verification of that notary, so they want some document that says in fact this person is a notary," Rehder said.
Notaries are barred from notarizing their own signature, or that of a spouse, but they can notarize other relatives, though it may not always be a good idea, according to Rehder, who said a notary should scrutinize every signature closely, even when they know the person doing the signing.
"You always want to verify who they are. You always need to see picture ID and you should be looking at that picture and comparing and looking at the signature on the ID card and comparing it.
"It's a very important part of most legal transactions," Rehder said.