Witnessing a Signature: What You Need to Know

by Feb 10, 2021

WITNESSING A SIGNATURE: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

 Getting a document signed is all about proof. It is a lot easier to show that someone has agreed to a contract if you can show that they applied their signature to that document, and a witness helps to identify the person signing.

Most legal documents do not have to be witnessed. A commercial agreement between businesses does not need to be witnessed to be binding.

For documents that do need a witness, different rules apply as to what type of witness is required, and how they are to do the witnessing. By watching you place your signature on the document and signing their own name next to yours, witnesses help verify the authenticity of your signature and help prove that it was signed willingly.

Signing a document is also called ‘executing’ a document and often you will see that the signing page is called the ‘execution page’. In this usage, ‘execution’ is used in a manner similar to ‘performance’ or ‘giving effect to’ an agreement.

Before we start, it is important for you to first understand the difference between a company and an individual when it comes to signing documents.

 

COMPANIES VS INDIVIDUALS

In most cases, when a company executes a document, no witnesses are required.

Under s.127 of the Corporations Act 2001, a company without common seal can execute a document by having it signed by 2 directors, or a director and company secretary, or the sole director and secretary of a proprietary company. Their signatures do not need to be witnessed.

For a company with common seal, the fixing of the seal must be witnessed by 2 directors, or a director and company secretary, or the sole director and company secretary of a proprietary company. An independent witness is not required.

Most companies no longer use a common seal.

Be aware also, that even if the document is not signed in accordance with s.127, the signature may still be binding; the parties simply can’t rely upon the provisions of s.127. It does not invalidate the signature.

This is not the case for individuals.

Depending on the type of document, the law sets out different requirements for an individual’s signature to be witnessed. Not all documents require witnessing. Examples of documents that do need witnessing include affidavits, statutory declarations, deeds, Wills and powers of attorney.

Who can be a witness also depends on the type of document. Sometimes it can be any independent party, and sometimes it must be an ‘eligible witness’ who hold specific qualifications.

We will discuss these different requirements below, using Queensland legislation as an example.

Regardless of whether signed by a company or an individual, when a document is signed, whether read or not, or understood or not, the signing party is bound. This principal was reiterated by the Australian High Court in the case of Toll (FGCT) Pty Limited v Alphapharm Pty Limited [2004] HCA 52, after reviewing prior case dating back to the 1800s. The Court held that:

Legal instruments of various kinds take their efficacy from signature or execution. Such instruments are often signed by people who have not read and understood all their terms, but who are nevertheless committed to those terms by the act of signature or execution. It is that commitment which enables third parties to assume the legal efficacy of the instrument. To undermine that assumption would cause serious mischief.”

agreements

You are not legally required to have your signature witnessed on an agreement. However, the agreement itself may contain a clause to require the parties to have their signatures witnessed. This may be beneficial for evidentiary purposes and to avoid dispute later. For example, if one party alleges that they were not the ones who signed the agreement, the witness of their signatures can confirm that they were.

The witness can be any independent party and does not need to hold specific qualifications. A spouse, family member or close friend is unlikely to be considered independent.

 

deeds

Unlike an agreement, you are legally required to have your signature witnessed if you are signing a deed. You will be able to tell if a document is a deed, because the signing page is likely to be titled ‘Executed as a Deed’.

In Queensland, the Property Law Act 1974 (Qld) sets out the witnessing requirements for a deed. Other Australian states and territories have similar legislation so that execution of deeds in Australia is covered by uniform requirements.

At least one independent party must witness your signature. It is not a requirement that the witness holds specific qualifications. It is a requirement that they are independent.

If your deed is not properly witnessed, it may not be enforceable.

There are flexible signing provisions in place during COVID restrictions, but they all have time limits.

 

wills and powers of attorney (poa)

The Succession Act 1981 (Qld) governs the signing of Wills.

When the maker of the Will (male – testator/ female – testatrix) signs the Will, two witnesses must be present at the same time to witness their signature. The witnesses can be any independent parties, that is they can not be a beneficiary under the Will. Usually, everyone will use the same pen to sign the Will.

When a Will does not meet the witnessing requirements, it will be invalidly made. You may still apply to the Court to have it declared a valid Will, but it is easier to have the Will properly witnessed the first time, rather than having to go to court to prove it.  

The Power of Attorney Act 1998 (Qld) requires an enduring power of attorney to be signed in the presence of an eligible witness.

An ‘eligible witness’ means a person who is:

  • a justice of the peace
  • a commissioner for declarations
  • an Australian lawyer
  • a notary public.

 

land registry documents

If you need your signature to be witnessed on a document that is to be registered with the Queensland Land Registry, the witness must be either:

  • a justice of the peace
  • a commissioner for declarations
  • an Australian lawyer
  • a notary public
  • a licensed conveyancer from another state
  • another person approved by the Registrar of Titles.

The Land Title Act 1994 (Qld) and Land Act 1994 (Qld) requires that a witness comply with the following requirements:

  1. take reasonable steps to verify the identity of the signatory;
  2. take reasonable steps to ensure the individual is entitled to sign the document; and
  3. retain records for 7 years (which includes a written record of the steps taken to verify identity and entitlement, and documents or other evidence obtained during the process of verification).

What this means for you as the signatory is that:

  1. you will have to produce evidence that verifies your identity; and
  2. passport, driver’s license
  3. you will have to produce evidence that you are the person entitled to sign the document.
  4. if you are selling a property, a current rate or valuation notice addressed to you and identifying the property, or a current title search
  5. if you are signing under a POA, you must produce the registered POA

covid-19 legislation

There is temporary COVID-19 legislation around the country which has changed some of the witnessing requirements mentioned above by offering greater flexibility.

For example, in Queensland, deeds can now be signed electronically without a witness. Wills and powers of attorney can be witnessed through audio or visual link.

The Queensland COVID-19 legislation will expire on 30 April 2021.

Want more information?

If you need help with agreements, deeds, Wills and powers of attorney documents and worry about what witnessing requirements apply, please contact us.