Most common law systems have what is called in the United States a notary public, a public official who notarizes legal documents and who can also administer and take oaths and affirmations, among other tasks. In the United States, a signing agent, also known as a loan signing agent, is a notary public who specializes in notarizing mortgage and real estate documents. Although notary publics are public officials, they are not paid by the government; they may obtain income by charging fees, provide free services in connection with other employment (for example, bank employees), or provide free services for the public good. Documents are notarized to deter fraud and to ensure they are properly executed. An impartial witness (the notary) identifies signers to screen out impostors and to make sure they have entered into agreements knowingly and willingly. Loan documents including deeds, affidavits, contracts, powers of attorney are very common documents needing notarization. In the US (except Puerto Rico), any person – lawyer or otherwise – may be commissioned as a notary.
To "notarize" a document or event is not a term of art, and its definition varies from place to place; but it generally means the performance by a notary of a series of possible steps, which may include the following (not an exhaustive list):
Identifying the person appearing before the notary through personal acquaintance or by reference to significant proofs of identity including passport, driving license, etc.
Where land titles are involved or significant rights may accrue by reference to the identity, signatures may also be verified, recorded and compared.
Recording the proof of identity in the notarial register or protocol.
Satisfying the notary that the person appearing is of full age and capacity to do whatever is intended.
Taking an affidavit or declaration and recording that fact.
Taking detailed instructions for a protest of a bill of exchange or a ship's protest and preparing it.
Recording the signature of the person in the register or protocol.
Taking an acknowledgment (in the United States) of execution of a document and preparing a certificate of acknowledgement.
Preparing a notarial certificate (in most other jurisdictions) as to the execution or other step.
Sealing or stamping and signing the document.
Recording all steps in the register or protocol.
Delivering the completed original to the person appearing.
In some cases, retaining a copy of the document in the register or protocol.
Charging the person appearing a fee for the service.