David S. Willig: The Civil-Law Notary: A Bridge Between Worlds

David S. Willig: The Civil-Law Notary: A Bridge Between Worlds

David S. Willig

DAVID S. WILLIG, ESQ. – The word “notary” is usually associated in the public mind with a quasi-official who pulls out his or her stamp when someone needs a witness for an oath or some other legal transaction.

Only three hours of classroom time are required to be a notary public in Florida,

but the Civil-Law Notary is very different. These notaries, where they are part of the legal landscape, are high-level legal professionals who handle important transactions.   In creating this designation, the Florida Legislature realized one of its greatest unsung achievements.

The Scope of the Profession

The Civil-Law Notary is intended to function similarly to that of notaries in “civil law” jurisdictions such as Quebec and Argentina, not incidentally two of Florida’s most important international economic partners. Asian countries such as Japan and China also have adopted the use of notarial professionals..

In these jurisdictions, the notary is the “go-to” legal professional for a variety of non-contentious matters involving real property. These include conveyancing and real rights such as mortgages, financial matters and decedents’ estates.

Civil-Law Notaries give authenticity to written acts or contracts, and the Legislature showed great foresight in seeing how Florida could benefit from facilitating various documentary matters through this office. Under the Florida statute and regulations, authenticity creates a legal presumption that the entire contents of the document are correct.  In a litigation setting, this could, in theory, shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff introducing the act to the defendant, in order to attack the authentic form of the document and rebut the presumption of correctness of its contents.

Because the Civil-Law Notary in Florida is able to lend this legal authenticity to deeds, contracts and the like, he or she is able to emulate the practice of notaries in other civil-law jurisdictions.  And while some such legal documents may be destined for use in civil-law jurisdictions outside the United States, the Civil-Law Notary’s authentic acts are no less authentic, even in a purely domestic environment.

Untangling Troubles

There are about 100 Civil-Law Notaries in Florida, commissioned by the Florida Department of State. Each Civil-Law Notary is a member of the Florida Bar and has practiced for at least five years.  Additionally, a supplemental course is required in notarial law, both as a matter of history, and as applied currently in Florida.  The course is followed by an examination, and the successful candidates may obtain the title of Civil-Law Notary.

Most applications by this author of the Civil-Law Notary’s power to confer authenticity have been used in the international context, and the results can be gratifying.  Sometimes called an international notary, the civil law notary is a bridge between foreign and domestic legal systems, and his or her ability to authenticate an act has helped many Floridians cut through red tape.

For example,a widow who was unable to provide appropriate documentation to claim her late husband’s foreign pension before passage of Florida’s Civil-Law Notary statute was able to do so fairly easily afterward.  In another, the estates of two parents who died in quick succession after retiring from the United States in their birth country were tied up in confusion for five years, but a Florida Civil-Law Notary was able to clear up things in short order..

In still another example, a Florida Civil-Law Notary came to the aid of a Miami law firm that did not have one, and acting on its behalf was able to successfully authenticate testimony and exhibits from an American-style deposition for a proceeding in a Spanish-speaking country in South America.

The possibilities are limited only by the creativity of the notarial practitioner, working with knowledge of the Florida statutes and regulations on authentic acts, as well as having an understanding generally of notarial practice in traditional civil-law jurisdictions.

A profession with growth potential

There is one important statutory limit: A foreign, “receiving” country of an authentic act made in Florida must enjoy normal diplomatic relations with the United States. Even so, with about 20 percent of Floridians being born outside the U.S., there are probably at least 4 million people in the state with potential property, family and personal interests in civil-law countries.

David S. Willig  received a B.A. in French from the University of South Florida, then graduated from the University of Miami School of Law.  He has been admitted to practice law in Florida, and in Europe, after passing written and oral exams to be sworn in at the Bar of Paris, France.  Willig also works at a professional level in Spanish and Portuguese, having given lectures on legal topics in South and Central America as well as Europe.  He became a Florida Civil-Law Notary in 1998, which has become an important tool for him in assisting clients around the world. He can be reached at 305-860-1881, and his Miami office is located at 2837 SW 3rd Ave., Miami, FL 33129.

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Donna Balancia, Publisher
The Florida Law Journal