Remote online notarization, sometimes also called online notarization or virtual notarization, refers to notarization that relies on online audio-visual communication. The notary public and the document signer are not physically present in the same room, but rather communicate on an audio-visual platform. More and more states are taking steps to accommodate RONs and to specify the requirements the parties must meet. In many states, the notary is required to have special training or licensing to perform a remote online notarization.
About half of the states have enacted permanent laws that address remote online notarization. These states include:
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with its stay-at-home orders and new social distancing norms, nearly all of the remaining states have also issued emergency authorizations that allow remote online notarization. (And some states with existing laws have issued temporary orders expanding or clarifying those laws.) These temporary measures have expiration dates, but many have been extended as the pandemic has continued. To look up whether your state currently has an emergency authorization in place, see the National Notary Association’s list of states taking emergency action on remote notarization.
The state laws and executive orders vary widely in what they allow. For example, although South Dakota has enacted a permanent RON law, the law is extremely limited in scope; it allows remote online notarization only of paper—not electronic—documents, and requires a notary to have personal knowledge of the signer’s identity. Several other states also allow only remote ink-signed notarizations (or RINs). Delaware’s temporary order allows only Delaware attorneys to perform RONs. The states also lay out different requirements for the RON process. In other words, when performing a remote online notarization, it’s necessary to follow the very specific guidelines set out by a particular state’s law or emergency order.
Because estate planning documents can involve real concerns about fraud, undue influence, and mental capacity, many states’ remote online notarization statutes and emergency orders either explicitly exclude wills and trusts from documents that can be notarized remotely, or impose more exacting requirements. To find out more about your state and what it allows with respect to wills and trusts, see The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel’s compilation of states. A few states have also enacted permanent laws allowing electronic wills, and many more seem poised to follow suit in the near future. (See What Is an Electronic Will?)
The exact requirements vary by state, but notarizing your document online typically requires the following steps:
Some states further require that an audio-visual recording of the virtual signing be stored for a number of years, typically between five and 10 years.
Remote online notarizations are rapidly becoming more prevalent, especially given the large push, borne of necessity, during the COVID-19 era. The changing field has raised concerns related to cybersecurity, encryption, and storage of sensitive electronic documents, as well as whether certain identity authentication methods—such as when a notary views a photo I.D. over a camera—are sufficient. At the end of the day, remote online notarizations remain relatively new in many states, and the states’ temporary measures—drafted quickly to respond to emergencies—sometimes leave gaps and raise questions. Some attorneys are wary of relying on them, and advise re-executing (re-signing and re-notarizing) legal documents in traditional ways once emergency circumstances have passed. But it’s clear that remote online notarizations are making inroads and becoming more entrenched in our daily lives.