What is a “Subscribing Witness”?

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The Subscribing Witness identification procedure is perhaps the most misunderstood notarial process of all.

Identifying a document principal using a Subscribing Witness is not done very often because of limitations and frankly, because so few understand how to do this, but it really is not difficult if we piece it together properly.

So, here we go…

Sometimes, circumstances can prohibit a document signer, (the document principal who must sign the document) from going to a notary and the signer is unable to find a notary willing to travel to them. In certain cases, the principal who cannot go to a notary can ask another person who personally knows the signer if they would be willing to take the signed document to a notary for them. That person must be physically present with the principal at the time of the request and will either watch the principal sign or the principal will “acknowledge” to that person that they signed.  In other words, if the document had already been signed prior to the arrival of this other person, the principal will communicate to that person that the signature on the document is indeed, their signature.
This person who “witnessed” the signing of the document is called a “Subscribing Witness” of course, since they “witnessed”  the signature being placed on the document. When the Subscribing Witness appears before the notary at that later time, the notary will require an oath from this Subscribing Witness that they personally know the principal who signed and that they were physically present with the principal when the principal acknowledged his or her signature on the document. The Subscribing Witness will also swear to the notary that the principal asked him or her to sign the document as a witness. This notarial act is called a Proof of Execution and the notary will complete a notarial certificate called a Subscribing Witness Jurat.

That perhaps sounded much more complicated than it really is, so let’s use an example to wrap our heads around this.

Suppose a principal is incarcerated in a very rural location and he needs to sign a document. Suppose also that this document needs to be notarized but for whatever reasons, it has been impossible to locate a notary close enough to the area who would be able to come to the facility to provide the notarial service.

 In this case, a friend of the principal, who personally knows the principal might be able to visit this person at the institution,  and during the visit, the signer can ask their friend to watch as he signs the document and then ask if they would be willing to take it to a notary for him. His friend agrees and is now a “Subscribing Witness”. This Subscribing Witness must also sign the document at the request of the principal and then he will take the document to the notary for that person since he could not do so himself.
The purpose of this procedure is so the identity of the principal can be satisfactorily satisfied to the notary, even though the principal cannot go to a notary himself by the oath that the Subscribing Witness will take at the time of notarization.
There are significant limitations to this procedure. For example, it cannot be used with a Power of Attorney, or real estate documents such as Grant Deeds or Deeds of Trust. Another important reason why this procedure is not done very often is since the notary is not permitted to complete this service unless the Subscribing Witness can be identified specifically through the oath of someone else who knows the Subscribing Witness and who also personally knows the notary, the procedure is usually limited by the fact that meeting this criterion can be challenging to satisfy.
Let me say this again, we very rarely complete this procedure, but during our seminar for the notary exam preparation, this procedure is explained so thoroughly that even if it is on the exam, you should have no trouble at all with this at all. In fact, you will be one of the few notaries out there who understand this procedure to complete it properly.