The Rise of Remote Online Notarization

In over 35 states, notaries public can take advantage of electronic signature-related technologies to remotely notarize documents. And most of the remaining states that don’t have permanent laws in place allowing remote online notarization (RON) have authorized it through executive order or other temporary emergency measures.

In many ways, this convenient and safe way to get a document legally notarized is a natural extension of the e-signature technologies signers have been using for the past two decades. The notarial act still includes signing a document in the “presence” of a state-licensed individual known as a notary public. The notary public still verifies the signer’s identity, witnesses the document being signed, affixes a notarial seal to the document and records the transaction in a journal.

There are some key differences between in-person paper-based notarization and remote online notarization (RON). RON utilizes digital tools such as ID verification and knowledge-based authentication to identify the signer, and the signing process is conducted via two-way audio-visual technology—which is recorded for a more complete record and to help ensure no one involved is acting under duress. The notarized document is also tamper-evident, and personally identifiable information is stored securely.

RON helps business functions continue safely

RON laws are gaining momentum across the United States, the first having been passed in 2011 by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Many other states have since followed suit by adopting their own RON laws. The trend of states passing RON legislation has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic as states sought to continue allowing notarizations while still maintaining social distance.

With RON, the entire notarization process takes place on digital devices, with signers and notaries safely and securely completing the transaction from any permissible location. In effect, signers can notarize documents such as powers of attorney and auto title transfers from the comfort of their living rooms.

RON legislation will likely follow in the footsteps of state and federal e-signature laws, which led to broad industry acceptance. Such a development seems inexorable, in large part because these same e-signature laws and principles laid the foundation for RON laws. 

What to expect when you use RON

RON uses electronic signature-related technologies—such as identity verification, fraud-evident encryption technology and digital audit trails—along with industry-standard audiovisual technology. 

Criteria for performing RON may vary by state, but usually conform to the same general approach: 

  • The notary is registered with the state
  • The process uses two-way audio-visual communication technology
  • The signer's identity is verified through digital identity-proofing
  • The document is electronically signed, and an electronic seal is affixed to the document
  • The transaction is recorded in an electronic journal
  • The solution adheres to common data privacy principles

The cornerstone of any notarial act is verifying a person’s identity—and RON arguably does this better than traditional in-person notarial acts. With RON, signers can currently verify their identity using any combination of the following methods: 

  1. Remotely presenting government-issued identification to the camera for image capture and verification by the notary public
  2. Using a third-party vendor to perform “credential analysis” to confirm the credential’s authenticity 
  3. Having the signer complete a dynamic knowledge-based authentication (KBA), which relies on signers correctly answering questions about themselves that have been randomly selected from a third-party database

These identity verification tools provide a more reliable and auditable experience for signers and notaries. They can also help ensure the legitimacy of credentials better than in-person reviews performed by individuals who may not have the latest training in identifying fraudulent credentials.

After the signer’s identity has been verified, the notary public will witness them signing the document. For this step, RON transactions rely on e-signature technologies that have been consistently and securely used for nearly two decades. The notary public may also be required to make an audio-visual recording of the notarial act to enhance the integrity of the process. By documenting the notarization session, it can be easier to establish that no one is signing a document under duress. 

Once the signature is witnessed and the document is notarized, the notary public generates an electronic journal entry memorializing the transaction. Technologies such as tamper-evident sealing of electronically signed and notarized documents also allow parties to determine if the document has been modified after it was notarized.

As with e-signature law before it, a core principle of RON law is “technology neutrality”:  no particular technology or process is accorded higher legal deference than any other, so long as it meets the essential standards. This approach helps ensure that technological innovation that improves upon, or replaces, current processes, can flourish without the need for additional legislation. 

Using RON increases access to notarial services 

RON is a more convenient method to conduct notarial transactions because individuals can choose both a time and location that works for them. This convenience allows more people—such as those who have difficulty scheduling during working hours, live in remote areas, or have other mobility issues—to access notarial services as needed. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, RON has helped protect signers and notaries with high-risk health issues, and helped prevent the virus’s spread. 

RON is the future of notarization for both business and personal transactions. Today most—but not all—documents that can be notarized in person can also be notarized remotely. Much as e-signature law enabled widespread adoption of a valuable technology across the United States, it is natural to expect RON laws to similarly evolve nationwide to enable consistent and reliable access to remote online notarization.

Want to learn more? Check out our white paper, Remote Online Notarization: A Natural Evolution of Electronic Signature

Docusign Contributor