Notary Force


Determining a signer’s awareness or unwillingness

Determining a signer’s awareness or unwillingness

Florida specifically prohibits a Notary from performing a notarization if a signer appears unable to understand the nature of the document at the time of notarization or if the Notary knows the signer has been declared mentally incapacitated by a court with appropriate jurisdiction.

As a mobile notary, I’ve found myself in some tricky situations. Twice now, I’ve had to walk away from a notarization because the signer was either in the dark about what they were signing or uninterested in completing the process. It’s never easy to decline a job, but as a notary, I take my responsibilities very seriously. Safety, legality, and ethics always come first.

Story #1 – Unaware: As I made my way to meet an elderly woman for a POA signing, my senses were on high alert. It’s always vital to ensure that the person knows exactly what they’re signing up for, so I asked the daughter who called me if she understood everything. She confidently replied in the affirmative, and I went ahead with the appointment. Two disinterested witnesses arrived as planned. When I reached the location, the daughter was chatting non-stop, and I couldn’t help but be on guard. My focus, however, was on the elderly lady in the wheelchair. As I approached the elderly woman, her demeanor seemed distant, and I knew I had to approach her with care. It was clear to me that her level of awareness may have been compromised, so I began asking questions to better understand her state of mind. However, her daughter continued to interject and assure me that her mother was fully aware of what she was doing. Despite this, I knew it was imperative that I assess the mother’s understanding myself, so I kindly informed the daughter to let her mother answer the questions. 

Below are the steps that are recommended by the National Notary Association to ensure a thorough assessment of the situation.

Assessing Awareness

If you suspect that your signer’s level of awareness may be compromised, there are simple, noninvasive steps you can take to help your consideration:

  • Introduce Yourself/Explain Your Role: Ease possible tension with a friendly introduction and brief explanation of your role as a signature witness.
  • Ask Questions: Ask open-ended questions requiring more than “yes” or “no” answers, which will help determine the signer’s coherence. Focus on non-personal topics such as weather, sports, or weekend plans.
  • Seek Clarification: If you are unsure if a signer understands your questions, you can ask them to tell you the title of the document.

Upon examination, it became apparent that the mother of our client was unsure of the documents she was signing. After careful consideration, I made the difficult decision to deny the notarization due to the lack of clarity in the mother’s responses. Understandably, this decision was met with disappointment from her daughter.

Story #2 – Unwilling:  Recently, I journeyed to a lawyer’s office for a notarization appointment. This lawyer was someone I greatly respected for her professionalism and kindness. On this occasion, an elderly woman and her daughter were in attendance. The lawyer reviewed the will with the woman, ensuring that all of her requests were included. The woman was ready to sign, but before doing so, she began to share a story from her past about her dream of being a dancer. It was a touching moment. However, the daughter rolled her eyes and told her mother that no one wanted to hear about it.  The lawyer cut in and said that the story was in fact interesting.  Once again, the mother was about to sign.  Right before she did, one of a few arguments between mother and daughter ensued.  Both accusing each other of terrible things. The woman would look like she was about to sign and then an argument would occur. After 45 minutes of this back and forth, the woman said that she didn’t want to sign and that she was being forced too.  Obviously, both the attorney and I knew this notarization was not going to take place.  I already had my doubts well before the 45 minutes had passed. As I informed the woman that I could not notarize her document and would be leaving, she surprisingly replied with “alright, I’ll sign it”. However, it was clear that I couldn’t proceed with notarizing the document, and the attorney was also in agreement.

In an article published by the National Notary Association states the following:

Notaries are not expected to be medical or psychiatric experts. But you should still pay attention to whether a signer appears aware and willing to conduct business requiring a notarization. In some states this critical evaluation of a person’s awareness of the transaction is a legal requirement.

Assessing a signer’s awareness generally means observing whether the signer is mentally aware enough to understand what’s going on at the time they sign documents. These are the most common situations in which a signer’s awareness may be compromised:

  • An elderly signer suffering from confusion, dementia or Alzheimer’s.
  • Heavily medicated signers, including those facing surgery or in hospice care.
  • Signers who are under the influence of alcohol or narcotics past the point of comprehension.

Staying safe is a critical consideration that often gets overlooked in the mobile notary business. While I’ve been fortunate to avoid any safety concerns so far, it’s still something that lurks in the back of my mind. Unfortunately, I also know of other notaries who have faced safety issues. As per the National Notary Association, safety should be a top priority for all notaries.

One Final Word On Safety

If you feel threatened by an individual at a notarization, or that refusing a notarization would place you in imminent danger, go ahead and complete it. Then report the situation immediately afterwards to your local law enforcement.

As a notary, we hold the responsibility of ensuring that important documents are notarized correctly, granting peace of mind to individuals whose lives may be impacted by these papers. Each signature may hold the key to someone’s future, so it’s imperative that we handle these documents with care and respect. I take pride in this role and take the necessary steps to guarantee that each notarization is executed flawlessly, always keeping the signer’s best interest in mind.

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