by Rebecca Tunney, Kerry E. Spindler, and Sara Goldman Curley
On April 27, 2020, Massachusetts became the latest state to enact remote notarization and witnessing through “an Act providing for virtual notarization to address the circumstances related to COVID-19” (the “Act”). The Act temporarily authorizes the affirmation, acknowledgment or other notarial acts of documents utilizing electronic video conferencing in real time. The Act will be in effect until 3 business days after the termination of Governor Baker’s declared state of emergency. See Executive Order 591.
Under M.G.L. c 222 §16, “a notary public shall not perform a notarial act if… the principal is not in the notary public’s presence at the time of notarization.” The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (also known as COVID-19), and Governor Baker’s resulting declaration of a state of emergency in Massachusetts on March 10, 2020, have made it difficult to execute documents “in the presence of” a notary public (“notary”). This has caused problems for those who need to sign documents that require notarization, either by statute or pursuant to best practice, including many estate planning and real estate documents.
Requirements for Remote Notarizations
The Act provides a critical alternative to in-person notarizations during this period of required physical distancing. The Act also permits remote witnessing if the witness’s signature is notarized, noting that the signature of any witness who participates in the remote notarization will be valid as if the witness had been present to sign in person (i.e., witnesses under a will must still qualify under M.G.L. c 190B § 2-505). The Act still requires “wet” signatures and does not authorize electronic signatures.
Under Section 3(a) of the Act, any notarial act performed by a notary appointed pursuant to M.G.L. c 222 § 1A utilizing electronic video conferencing (“remote notarization”) will be valid and effective if:
(i) The notary and each principal are physically located within Massachusetts. “Principal” is defined as any person whose signature is being notarized, including witnesses;
(ii) The notary creates an audio and video recording of the notarial act and obtains the verbal assent of each principal to do so;
(iii) The notary observes each principal’s execution of a document;
(iv) Each principal who is not personally known to the notary visually displays federal or state issued identification bearing a photograph and signature of the principal (or a passport or other government-issued identification that evidences the principal’s nationality or residence if the principal is not a US citizen) during the electronic videoconference, and transmits a copy of the identification to the notary. With respect to any document requiring notarization and executed in the course of closing a transaction involving a mortgage or other conveyance of title to real estate (hereinafter, “Closing Documents”), Section 6(b) provides that any principal who is not personally known to the notary must also display a second form of identification containing the principal’s name (specific examples of forms of identification are set forth in Section 6(b));
(v) Each principal makes the necessary acknowledgment, affirmation or other act to the notary. In addition, each principal (a) swears or affirms under the penalties of perjury that the principal is physically located in Massachusetts, (b) discloses any other person present in the room, and (c) makes such person viewable to the notary; and
(vi) Each principal causes the original executed document to be physically delivered to the notary in accordance with the notary’s instructions.
Except for Closing Documents, the notary may sign and stamp the document upon satisfaction of the preceding (i) through (vi), at which point Section 3(b) of the Act provides that the notarial act shall be complete. Since one of the requirements for completion is the delivery of the executed document to the notary, some practitioners recommend that the notary sign the document twice: first during the videoconference after the principal signs, and again when the notary receives and collates the original documents. The notary should affix his or her seal only once, on receipt of the original documents.
Upon receipt of executed Closing Documents, the notary and each principal must engage in a second recorded video conference during which each principal verifies that the document received by the notary is the same document executed during the first video conference. See Section 3(a)(vi). The principal must again affirm to being physically located in Massachusetts, disclose any person also present in the room, and make such persons viewable to the notary. Id. Having all the originals in hand, the notary signs and stamps the Closing Document during this second video conference. Id.
In each case, the notary block must recite (i) that the document was notarized remotely pursuant to the Act, (ii) the county in which the notary was located when the notarial act was completed, and (iii) the date the notarial act was completed. See Section 3(c). To avoid confusion, the notary block may include both the date and county in which the notary was located when the principal was remotely before the notary, and the date and county in which the notary was located when the notary signed and stamped the executed originals. Id.
The notary must also execute an affidavit confirming that the notary (i) visually inspected each principal’s identification during the video conference and received a copy thereof (if a principal is not personally known to the notary), (ii) obtained consent from each principal to record the proceeding, (iii) received affirmation that each principal is physically in Massachusetts; and (iv) was informed of any person present in the room, and such person’s relationship to each principal is listed on the affidavit. See Section 3(d). With respect to Closing Documents, the affidavit must address both video conferences.
Any will, nomination of guardian or conservator, caregiver authorization affidavit, trust, durable power of attorney, health care proxy or other authorization under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”) (hereinafter, collectively “Estate Planning Documents”) is considered complete when all original counterparts and the notary’s affidavit are compiled. See Section 3(e).
The notary must retain for 10 years a copy of (i) each principal’s evidence of identity (although there is no requirement to retain a copy of a second form of identification with respect to Closing Documents), (ii) the affidavit executed by the notary, and (iii) the audio and video recording of the remote notarization. See Sections 3(a)(iii), 3(d), 3(f).
Restrictions on Who Can Notarize
Only notaries who are licensed to practice law in Massachusetts or a paralegal under the direct supervision of such an attorney may use remote notarization for Estate Planning Documents and Closing Documents. If the notary is a paralegal (which is not a defined term in the Act), the supervising attorney must retain the required documents and recordings for 10 years. Other documents may be notarized by any Massachusetts notary. See Section 6(a).
The Act is the product of several weeks of analysis and negotiation, beginning almost immediately after the state of emergency was declared, among representatives from a number of bar organizations, attorneys from multiple practice areas, private industry, government agencies and Massachusetts legislators. While there was ultimately broad support for the Act in the face of the current public health crisis, many practitioners remain wary of making such a procedure permanent given the potential for abuse.
Rebecca Tunney is an associate at Goulston & Storrs, P.C. She assists individuals and families with complex estate plans involving estate, gift and generation-skipping transfer tax planning, estate and trust administration, international tax planning, charitable giving and business succession planning.
Kerry L. Spindler is a Director in the Private Client & Trust practice group at Goulston & Storrs PC, where she focuses on estate, tax, wealth transfer and charitable planning, as well as estate and trust administration. She currently serves as co-chair of the Trusts & Estates Section of the Boston Bar Association.
Sara Goldman Curley is a partner and deputy chair of the Private Client Department at Nutter McClennen & Fish, LLP, where she assists clients on a broad range of estate planning, estate administration and trust administration matters. She currently serves as co-chair of the Trusts & Estates Section of the Boston Bar Association.