In what many describe as the age of electronic communications, we can now use our iPhones to transfer money from our bank account, submit our tax returns from our sofa using a laptop and do our weekly shop from our work on a PC.
However, there are still many things we have to do, that involve physical interaction and many documents that require a written signature. This is why the little-known profession of ‘notary public’ exists and firms such as Vanner Perez Notaries assist a range of customers from all walks of life on a daily basis.
Think, for instance, of a contract to purchase a new house or an agreement for the distribution of a couple’s assets following a divorce. Advances are being made in the development of e-signature systems but, even though digital signatures are becoming more common, we are still quite far from seeing the disappearance of the traditional signature.
On many occasions, not only your signature but also your physical presence is a requirement. This is even more common in some foreign countries. If you live in London, you can sign a sale agreement at home with your neighbour as a witness, but buying a property in many European countries, such as France, Italy or Spain, involves attending the offices of a specific type of lawyer (a ‘notary’) in person and signing the documents in the notary’s presence.
But what happens if you have been to Spain, agreed to buy the villa of your dreams, and when the time comes to sign the contract, you cannot take time off work to travel to Spain for the signing? And what if you want to sell some land in France that you have inherited and do not want to spend money travelling to France just to visit the French notary’s office?
In these circumstances, many people grant a power of attorney.
A power of attorney is a document which allows you to appoint someone else (your ‘attorney’) to represent you and do things on your behalf, including the signing of legal documents. An attorney does not necessarily have to be a lawyer – many people appoint a relative or a friend. You can choose the extent of the authority that you want to delegate to your attorney, which can be very wide, or restricted to specific transactions. Certain things are so personal they cannot be delegated to an attorney (e.g. signing your will, casting your vote in a general election or taking your driving test). But many things, including the signing of a property purchase, can be done through someone acting on your behalf under the authority granted by means of a power of attorney.
Powers of attorney executed in England and Wales are regulated by the Powers of Attorney Act 1971. When a power of attorney is going to be used abroad, some additional formalities might be necessary in order to fulfil the expectations of the foreign authorities. One of the most common requirements in such cases is that the power of attorney is certified by a notary public. In order to do that, the person signing the power (the grantor) must normally meet in person with a notary public who will certify the identity and signature of the grantor, and make sure that the document is executed properly. The notary usually places his or her own signature and seal on the power of attorney, or on a certificate attached to it, and this acts as a confirmation – which the foreign authorities can rely on – that the document has been properly executed by the correct person.
Sometimes additional steps are required (for example, the power of attorney often needs to be ‘legalised’ by the Foreign Office and/or the relevant embassy before being sent to the foreign country). These are steps the notary public would normally able to help you with.
Next time you have dealings in the Costa del Sol but cannot afford to travel in person, you know there is another practical option: speak to a notary and consider giving a power of attorney.