Notarizing and Witnessing Legal Documents During the Coronavirus Crisis

Commercial restrictions and social distancing make it harder to finalize many legal and financial documents.

Many common legal documents must be notarized or witnessed to be legally binding. For example, mortgage documents and financial powers of attorney must be notarized. Wills, on the other hand, require witnesses, as do the advance health care directives of many states. But how can you make a valid legal document in the time of the coronavirus pandemic?

How to Notarize Documents While Under Coronavirus Restrictions

To have a document notarized, you must physically appear before the notary public. You don’t always have to sign the document in front of the notary, but at the very least the notary must see you as you prove and acknowledge that you are the signer. In these times, states are reconsidering what it means to “physically appear,” frequently allowing notaries to do their work online.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, some states passed laws and issued regulations allowing remote online notarization (RON) so that notaries could acknowledge documents without in-person meetings. Early adopters included Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Now, in response to the coronavirus crisis, many other states have fast-tracked laws to permit this process, and the federal government is considering a national law. Many states have temporarily authorized online notarization because of the pandemic. But before relying on these laws, which were enacted as emergency measures, you'll want to make sure they have not expired.

For a regularly updated map showing states that are allowing RON, see the website of the Mortgage Bankers Association. To get details on where your state stands and how to use online notarization, consult a local mortgage professional or estate planning lawyer or contact your secretary of state’s office, which is in charge of regulating notaries in most states.

If you must have a legal or financial document notarized and online notarization isn’t available to you, see the next section of this article.

Getting Creative: Witnessing or Notarizing Legal Documents In-Person

If your document requires witnesses, most states require you to sign the document while the witnesses are watching. Then the witnesses must sign the documents themselves. Some states allow exceptions to this rule—giving you leeway to sign the documents now and have witnesses sign later—but be sure you are clear on your state’s law for the document you’re signing before you go that route.

If you and your witnesses must sign a legal document together—or if online notarization is not available to you—you may be able to find a creative way to solve this problem. For example, some notaries are meeting people in parking lots instead of in closed offices. The notary watches through a car windshield as people sign their documents. After this, they find a way to exchange the documents—perhaps by leaving them on the hood of the car to stay six feet away and afterward employing hand sanitizer.

It’s complicated, but you get the point. If you must finalize a legal document in person, there are many ways to use windows, doors, and cell phones to minimize physical exposure. Think through your circumstances and surroundings to see if you can come up with an inventive solution that meets the requirements of the law and also keeps everyone safe.

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