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Attorneys lobby for remote notarization while ‘distancing’

With social-distancing measures in place and anxiety about contracting COVID-19 on the rise, some Missouri attorneys are urging government officials to permit the remote notarization of legal documents.

Kansas City attorney Aimee Gromowsky took to Twitter March 20 to lobby Gov. Mike Parson to sign an executive order that would allow notaries to witness the execution of documents remotely, using audio-video technology.

“For my practice, I have notaries do all different kinds of things, and they can’t do them right now with safe social distancing,” she said.

She said she’s been working to find creative ways for her clients to get their documents notarized, including setting up a drive-through notary process.

“The most obvious answer would be for the governor to issue an executive order to do online notaries, just like the governor did in New York,” she said, referring to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed an executive order March 20 allowing documents to be signed virtually.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu followed Cuomo’s lead, signing a similar executive order March 23.

According to the National Notary Association, 23 states have passed remote notarization laws. In recent years in Missouri, lawmakers have filed bills to allow for it here, but those efforts ultimately stalled.

Lawmakers have again filed bills this session. Both a House and Senate bill have passed in committee and are awaiting debate by lawmakers, who were on spring break and not in session last week.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who supports the pending legislation, said he’s working with industry partners to reach an agreement on how the state should proceed.

“Anything we were able to do through an executive order, my sense right now is that it would have to be simpler. It would definitely have to be for a limited time,” he said. “If we wanted this going forward, it would need to be more robust . . . We are facing a worldwide pandemic, and I think we can come up with something — in the next two weeks, maybe three weeks, we could get broad support on something.”

Ashcroft said his office is not engaging with only the legislature on the issue, but he declined to comment on his interactions with the governor on the matter.

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The requirement for in-person notarization is even more acute in estate planning, where notarization requires additional witnesses to be present.

Betsy Lynch of Lynch Sharp & Associates in Kansas City practices in estate planning. In recent weeks, she said, she’s had an uptick in clients wanting to update their end-of-life documents.

What’s made that difficult, however, is having clients who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and who live in assisted-living and skilled nursing facilities or nursing homes.

She’s said she’s strategized how to access her clients in those situations, including identifying whether they have a window available to them in their room or facility, or glass doors they can use for distancing.

Lynch said extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

“I think people would be pleasantly surprised at the amount of due diligence attorneys are going to try to do to meet the original requirements,” she said. “If someone could just make it a little easier, we could all be a little safer.”

Ryan Kerner, an attorney for The Kerner Group in Chesterfield and owner of a title company, said he’s reached out to a lobbyist to engage legislators on the issue.

While he has several notaries on the staff of his title company, he said it’s difficult for them to meet with clients now.

“They don’t want to come into the office, especially elderly folks and people with pre-existing conditions, people with asthma. People are getting scared to go anywhere,” he said. “I get it, and I don’t want my employees going into people’s homes.”

Coronavirus crisis

This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

READ: Financial & business resources for solo, small firms | COVID-19 resources from The Bar Plan | Notary rules suspended | Attorneys cope with working from home | See full list

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