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A notary public is an officer who can administer and give oaths, and perform certain other acts varying from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Receiving organizations may request documents certified by notaries. Usually such requirement is prescribed by the law or administering regulations. Such certification attaches special official value to a document. To be recognized in a foreign country a document should be additionally legalized. Among countries subscribing to the 1961 Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalization for Foreign Public Documents only one further act of certification is required, known as an apostille.

The office of notary dates back to the Roman Empire. Currently there are two different notary systems, so called common law jurisdictions (the UK, the United States, etc.) and civil law jurisdictions (Russia, Ukraine, etc.).

Common Law jurisdictions

In the United States, generally speaking, a notary public is a public official appointed by the government to serve the public as an impartial witness. Such individual is not required to have special education. Non-attorney notary may not offer legal advice, may not prepare documents, and cannot recommend how one should sign something or even what type of notarization is necessary. Each state in the United States has different requirements for becoming a notary public and performing notary activities called notarizations.

Notarization does not prove the truthfulness of statements in a document and does not legalize or validate a document.

Notary is authorized to acknowledge signatures, take oaths and affirmations, and certify copies of non-government documents. Documents certified by notaries usually are sealed with the notary's seal and are recorded by the notary in a register. These are known as "notarial acts".

The primary types of notarizations are acknowledgement, jurat, affidavit, and certification of a copy.

An acknowledgment is a signed statement by the notary that the signer (1) personally appeared before the notary, (2) was positively identified by the notary, and (3) that the signer acknowledged having signed the document.

Acknowledgment means to admit, affirm, declare, testify, avow, confess or own as genuine. Notaries as notaries do not acknowledge; they take acknowledgments, meaning that they certify that an individual has acknowledged that an act of signing a document is his or her free act and deed. Any document may be acknowledged, but many do not require acknowledgment.

A jurat (or oath) is designed to compel truthfulness in a signer, e.g. by putting the fear of the law/god in them. A jurat is a signed statement by the notary that the signer (1) personally appeared before the notary, (2) signed the document in the presence of the notary, and (3) took and oath or affirmation administered by the notary, e.g. "Do you swear that the statements in this document are true, so help you God?" or "Do you affirm that the statements in this document are true?".
An oath or affirmation is defined as a form of attestation by which a person signifies that he or she is bound in conscience to perform an act faithfully and truthfully. An affirmation is a legal substitute for an oath. State laws usually provide that, in the administration of an oath, the word "swear" may be omitted, and the word "affirm" substituted, when the person to whom the obligation is administered is religiously scrupulous of swearing, or taking an oath in the prescribed form. In this case, the words "so help you God" may be omitted, and the words "under the pains and penalties of perjury" substituted; and a person so affirming shall be considered, for every legal purpose of privilege, qualification or liability, as having been duly sworn. Oaths and affirmations may not be administered over the telephone or by proxy.

An affidevit is a sworn or affirmed written statement or declaration of facts made voluntarily by an individual (affiant). The oath or affirmation that confirms the truth of an affidevit should be taken before a notary public and a jurat completed at the end of the affidevit and signed by the notary. The affiant should also sign the affidevit.

An affidavit is a formal sworn or affirmed statement of fact, written down, signed, and witnessed (as to the veracity of the signature) by a taker of oaths, such as a notary public. The name is Medieval Latin for he has declared upon oath.

A notary may certify that a copy of an original document is a true copy. This applies to any document of a personal nature, except vital records, such as birth, marriage, and death.

Civil Law jurisdictions

The role undertaken by notaries in civil law countries and the qualifications imposed by such countries are much greater than in common law countries. In many countries a notary may be similar to an attorney at law or lawyer. Civil law notaries are trained jurists who often receive the same training as advocating jurists. Civil law notaries are usually limited to areas of private law - that law which resolves between private individuals and involves minimal or no state intervention. The most common areas of practice for civil law notaries are in property conveyancing and registration, contract drafting, commercial transactions, successions and other estate related matters. They usually have no authority to appear before tribunals or courts on behalf of their clients.

A civil law notary should not be confused with a notary public which is a public office in the United States that allows the office holder to administer oaths and perform certain witness functions (but not to practice law). People are frequently confused by this important difference.