Notaries Go Virtual During Coronavirus Pandemic
By Sascha Brodsky
It’s a mundane but necessary part of modern life. Whether it’s signing a will or buying property, most legal transactions require a notary to witness a document being signed in person. But under pandemic social distancing guidelines getting together with a notary in person is impossible so many states are allowing notaries to work online.
Massachusetts is one state that has let notaries go virtual. On April 27, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law which allows the execution of notarized documents and documents requiring witnesses via videoconference during the COVID-19 crisis. Previously, state law had required that all notarization and witnessing be completed in person, with all parties in a room together.
Massachusetts has joined over 40 states in either temporarily or permanently allowing remote notarization of documents, said Kat Garcia of the National Notary Association, an industry group. Almost half the states have put in place permanent online notarization in place in the last few weeks, Garcia said. About 23 different states, including Massachuttes, have authorized the use of online notarizations during the pandemic in measures that will expire once the crisis has passed.
“The drive to go online is to make sure commerce still happens but we don’t want to put the population at risk or notaries at risk,” Garcia said.
Garcia said that only specially designed secure software can be used to perform online notarization. “There is a big rush to get rules for online notarizations adopted. It’s our hope that states will go through the proper security measures to make sure notarizations are secure,” she added.
Massachuttes lawyer Denise J. McCarthy says that going online for notarizations has entailed a steep learning curve.
“It’s hard because of all the questions you have to ask,” said McCarthy of Cody, Cody & McCarthy, LLC near Boston. “It was pretty simple when you used to have it in person. Now you have to show anyone else on camera and state their relationship, ask their permission to record and answer a series of questions. Then you have to do an affidavit saying you took all these steps.
But during the coronavirus crisis, the benefits outweigh the difficulties, she said, adding “Our clients love it because they don’t have to leave their homes.”
The ability to get documents notarized online has been a boon for older people who can’t leave their homes for health reasons, McCarthy said.
“I had one client who was elderly and not doing well,” she said. “He had come from Florida and moved here to Massachusetts into a hospice. Because he was from out of state, he needed to update his estate but couldn’t leave the hospice. With virtual notarization he was able to get the documents notarized without leaving the hospice.”
Andrew G. Sykes, an elder law attorney In Pittsburgh, Pa. decided to test out new rules in his state allowing online notarizations on himself before using it with clients. He did his own estate planning and arranged to get it notarized.
“The biggest problem has been that it was hard to get signed up with one of the new online software vendors that allow notarizations because everyone was contacting them,” he said. I talked to a lot of lawyers who were doing the same thing and I finally found a notary who was already signed up with an approved vendor.”
Once he found a notary, Sykes said that there were a few hiccups to the online process.
“I sent my notary my will, power of attorney and healthcare directive and she had to format them properly so she could do electronic notarization,” he said. “Then we arranged a time to talk and you have to make sure everyone on the call has to have a good laptop with a solid connection. It was a good learning experience but there was some fumbling around before we got everything working right.”
After social distancing guidelines end, Sykes said he would consider using online notarizations in cases where elderly clients can’t leave their nursing homes.
“I’m just being old school. I still prefer to have people sign in person,” he said. “ I can imagine that if someone comes in and signs it personally then the local bank will know it’s the power of attorney. But if it’s done online the bank might say we have to check with the legal department. People just aren’t used to this technology yet.”
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