BOSTON — From wills and trusts to real estate sales, a litany of legal work that needs notarization is on hold amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Under Massachusetts law, notarizations must take place in person, which is complicated by social distancing policies aimed at preventing further spread of the virus.
On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are weighing a proposal to allow public notaries to certify documents through videoconferencing, rather than in person.
The bill, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, would allow remote notarizations while the state’s emergency declaration remains in effect.
Lawmakers say allowing for remote notarizations, even on a temporary basis, is crucial for officiating everything from powers of attorney to real estate transactions.
“It is incumbent on us to advance a bill that grants relief for people needing notarization for things like wills, trusts, real estate documents like mortgages,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who proposed the changes. “The times we now live in, where people need to prepare wills and health care documents very quickly, compel us to act.”
Tarr’s bill faced opposition from mortgage holders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which raised concerns about how e-notarized documents would be mailed securely.
A previous version of the proposal was yanked from a municipal relief bill before it was sent to Gov. Charlie Baker two weeks ago. The latest proposal is updated to address the concerns of mortgage companies and includes more stringent requirements on how transactions are conducted.
Only a notary who is a licensed attorney or a state-certified paralegal under the supervision of an attorney may officiate remote transactions under the proposal. That excludes a majority of Massachusetts notaries who don’t have law degrees or paralegal certification.
The state has about 100,000 public notaries, and roughly 42,000 lawyers or paralegals are certified to notarize transactions.
Lawyers who provide estate planning services say they’ve still been able to conduct major transactions during the outbreak, but with health risks.
“Right now, people have to risk their lives to put their affairs in order, which is totally unacceptable,” said Joblin Younger, a Beverly estate planning lawyer and member of a 70-member committee that recommended the changes. “It’s very difficult to perform estate planning services under the current paradigm.”
Younger said he has officiated wills and other estate planning but only while practicing social distancing, wearing masks and gloves, and taking other precautions to protect his clients.
Notaries were not among the dozens of professions allowed to remain open under Gov. Charlie Baker’s stateside shutdown of nonessential businesses.
Baker hasn’t taken action to allow remote notarizations, even as New Hampshire and dozens of other states have done so by executive order.
On a federal level, groups have lobbied the Trump administration and Congress to allow remote notarization, either through legislation or an executive order.
The Massachusetts proposal now moves to the state House of Representatives for consideration.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.