A Brief Guide to Certified Documents for Non-lawyers in Washington State

Posted almost 5 years ago. Applies to Washington, 4 helpful votes



Certified Vital Records

Certified Birth, Death and Marriage certificates are often required by various agencies when applying for benefits, licensing or other situations where there is a need for verification of a person's legal status. Some requesting agencies may be satisfied with a copy of of a certified document where others may need a certified copy of the record. My office has actually seen one case where a pension fund requested both a certified copy of the birth record and a photocopy of the birth record for the same person but attached to two different forms which were to be used by two different departments within the pension administration office. A good place to start looking for certified documents is with the county auditor's office where the event occurred or online at the State Department of Vital Statistics website. Many documents can now be ordered online by persons with the authority to do such as the individul seeking his or her own record, next of kin or attorney of record.


Certified Court Records

In general, both within the legal community and without, there is a common misperception that any conformed copy or photocopy of a conformed copy of a court pleading or order is a "certified copy." This is not true. Certified copies are copies of the pleading or order that are stamped and certified by the court of the clerk in which the documents were filed or entered to be true copies of the original. Perhaps the most well known certified court records are letters testamentary and letters administration which are issued in probate cases. In Washington State certified court orders meet the documentation requirements of some sections of the statutes pertaining to transfers that are exempt from the real estate excise tax. Even though increasing numbers of documents filed in the federal courts are available through PACER, these are not certified court records and each court's website should be consulted to determine what the proper procedure is for ordering certified copies.


Certified Auditor's or Recorder's Records

In our office we routinely recommend recording power of attorneys. The primary reason is to ensure that a recorded original is available in an easily accessible location in the event that the person granting the power of attorney is unable to execute a new document. Our primary concern in doing this for persons of modest means has been to ensure proper documentation is available to qualify for real estate excise tax exemptions in the course of Medicaid Qualification. But the same is true for gifting that may occur for tax purposes or ongoing estate planning subject to the provisions and limitations on transfers within the power of attorney document. As a practical matter, many institutions and governmental agencies require an original or a certified copy. As it is unwieldly and increases the chance for alterations to have muliptle originals, certified copies play an important role in transfering assets into trusts or to others particularly when those interests are fractionalized.


Certification by Public Agencies and Custodians of Documents for Litigation Purposes

In some cases Pro Se litigants (persons representing themselves) may wish to provide evidence obtained from agencies other than the Courts, Vital Records or the Auditor or Recorder's office. Start with the agency's website to determine whether an established procedure has been established for the type of record you wish to present in litigation. A letter in writing requesting a public records disclosure when attached with an official response and produced documents may also be sufficient to demonstrate certification. However, there are other situations when a litigant may wish to request that the person or entity providing the documents attest that they are the custodians of the record and that they have provided true copies. Non-lawyers should consult with an attorney if the custodian does not have a stock form used for this purpose to assure that the declaration or affidavit of the custodian is drafted appropriately.


Certification of Copies by Notaries

While it is very common knowledge that notaries witness signatures and attest they have made an investigation and determined that the person signing a document is the person named, it is not so well known that Notaries may certify copies of documents. The statute reads: "In certifying or attesting a copy of a document or other item, a notary public must determine that the proffered copy is a full, true, and accurate transcription or reproduction of that which was copied." A short form for certifying copies is provided in the statute. In general, Notaries should limit their certification activities to certifying documents to situations where there are not other options to obtain certified documents. The statute also advises notaries that non-lawyers are not to draft or interpret notarial language. A common document to which notaries provide certifed copies of is the foreign passport.

Additional Resources

As is the case with all published legal information on the internet for educational purposes, the information provided above may or may not apply to a given individual's situation and seeking the advice of an attorney is strongly suggested.

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