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What is a seal on a legal document?

Updated February 21, 2017

Chances are you have seen legal seals many times, but never looked closer, or thought about why they're there. Seals on legal documents and official papers are an ancient practice, and serve an important purpose.

Identification

From ancient parchment documents with wax impressions to court papers and patriotic images, seals imprint and decorate official documents. Any object that physically seals an item with a unique image or imprint is a seal. A more modern seal is an official ink stamp or an image actually imprinted onto the material itself.

Purpose

Seals used by governments, courts and legal entities show a formal procedure was followed, and that the document was properly acknowledged or witnessed. Further, because seals are unique to the authorising agency, they prove the authenticity of a given document--it couldn't have been issued by anyone else.

Types

Seals are found on all official court papers to witness the time, date and ordering authority. Companies use seals on legal paperwork to signify their intent to act. Notaries public use seals to witness the identity or statements of the person appearing before them. Governments use seals to sign important official papers, imprint legal tender or show that a given item is officially recognised.

History

Seals are an ancient practice. Kings, queens and nobility sealed important documents with an object, often a signet ring, pressed into wax. Not only did these seals prove they were from them, but also showed that the document hadn't been tampered with if the seal wasn't broken. William the Conquerer used a seal showing his likeness mounted on horseback, and Roman emporers imprinted coins with their seal. Like today, courts and governments used seals to declare the document official.

Penalty for Misuse

The law provides that if an individual forges the signature, or counterfeits the seal, of any court, or knowingly aids or presents a forgery, they're guilty of a crime. The punishment is a fine and up to five years prison, or both.

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About the Author

Karie Fay earned a Bachelor of Science in psychology with a minor in law from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. After growing up in construction and with more than 30 years in the field, she believes a girl can swing a hammer with the best of them. She enjoys "green" or innovative solutions and unusual construction.