By FOCUS, a Leonine Business
Wills, titles, mortgages, powers of attorney, medical directives, affidavits and more – all of these legal documents and many more require the signature of a notary public in order to have a binding legal effect. Without notarizations, key pieces of the economy and our judicial system would grind to a halt and be more susceptible to fraud. The pressing need for these services has been underscored by the ongoing crises, and, recognizing its importance, states have taken decisive action to keep the wheels turning on this important issue over the last two months.
In most states, a requirement for notarizations is that they are done in-person, directly before the notary with the documents to be signed. However, in the era of COVID-19 and social distancing, the prospects of appearing in person to have a document notarized poses not only a significant danger for both parties but may effectively be impossible due to a patchwork of stay-at-home orders across the nation.
About half of the states – 23 in total – had laws permitting remote notarizations on the books prior to the onset of social distancing. The pandemic has served as a tipping point for the issue. In its wake, the number of states authorizing remote notarization has exploded, with nearly every state now authorizing the practice to some extent, some permanently, others on a temporary basis.
Recognizing the potential hazards presented by in-person notarizations, at least 33 states have taken some form of executive action, either through executive orders, emergency rules or otherwise, to allow notarizations to take place though an audio-video connection, such as through Zoom or Skype, or to expand the existing scope of remote notarizations. Another six states have enacted laws since the start of the pandemic to allow remote notarizations. A bipartisan piece of federal legislation on the issue, S. 3533, was introduced in March and remains pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A major caveat to these newly enacted laws and executive orders is that many are temporary and confined to the duration of the existing state of emergency and set to terminate shortly after. Once the states return to business-as-usual, so too will the notaries public, and once again most notarizations will return to in-person requirements.
With many states currently looking to end their lockdowns sooner rather than later, a shift back to in-person notarizations will undoubtedly also begin to occur. Having been given a sample of the convenience of remote notarizations, however, it is certain to cause a push for authorization in states that have not enacted full-time remote notarization legislation. This is an issue we can expect to see heat up in legislative chambers once legislators begin to meet again in 2021.