Tax titles are precarious in SC

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New Court of Appeals case demonstrates this fact again

A South Carolina Court of Appeals case* decided on June 20 demonstrates once again how precarious real estate titles coming through tax sales can be in South Carolina.

The unfortunate facts are not unusual. Bessie and Willis Thompson owned a residence in Bamberg County. They died in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The residence was devised to three grandchildren, one of whom, Corretta McMillan, was involved in this case through the appeal. The estates of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson were not probated, leaving the Thompsons as the title holders of record.

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Corretta McMillan paid the 2005 property taxes, but she did not notify Bamberg County of the deaths of her grandparents, nor did she provide a substitute address for tax notices. The 2006 property taxes were not paid, resulting in a letter to the residence from Bamberg County in the spring of 2007. In May of 2007, Bamberg County sent a second notice to the residence via certified mail. The letter was returned undelivered with the receipt marked “Deceased” above the names of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. McMillan never received the notices, and she rented to house to Bernard Hallman in the summer of 2007.

Bamberg County referred the property to the Delinquent Tax Office which held a tax sale in November of 2007. The tax office submitted a minimum bid on behalf of the Forfeited Land Commission (FLC), a commission within each county which exists to bid on real properties not otherwise sold at tax sales. Following this tax sale, however, Ralph Johnson contacted the tax office with an offer to purchase several dozen tax sale properties. The tax office assigned to Johnson the bids it had submitted on behalf of the FLC, allowing Johnson to purchase 39 tax sale properties, including the residence involved in this appeal.

In January of 2009, McMillan paid a portion of the outstanding property taxes. Bamberg County sent her a notice acknowledging receipt of her payment and informing her that there were still delinquent taxes due. No mention was made of the tax sale.

Johnson acquired a deed to the property in February of 2009, at which time he learned the property was still occupied by Hallman. Johnson asked Hallman to move out and later filed an eviction action. Hallman notified his landlord, McMillan, of the eviction action.

The magistrate held Johnson’s eviction proceeding in abeyance when the FLC filed suit against Johnson alleging the tax office had inappropriately assigned its bids to Johnson without FLC’s authority. This suit also alleged the tax sales had not been conducted in compliance with the “rigid statutory structure.” Johnson answered, cross claimed and counterclaimed. One of his theories was the two-year statute of limitations on challenging tax sales set out in South Carolina Code §12-51-160.

During a November 2013 hearing, McMillan appeared and informed the court that she was an heir of the Thompsons. The FLC abandoned its suit and the circuit court dismissed the FLC’s complaint and Johnson’s counterclaims with prejudice. The circuit court then entered a default judgment in favor of Johnson on his cross claims to quiet title.

On April 8, 2014, McMillan filed an answer and counterclaim to Johnson’s quiet tile action. Johnson maintained McMillan could not contest the validity of the tax sale because the claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations. At trial, there was no evidence that the property was properly posted with a notice of the tax sale once the second notice was returned marked “Deceased”.  The circuit court granted the quiet title demand.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, discussing the two-year statute of limitations and the technicalities required for a successful tax sale. The Court sited earlier cases which held that defects in quiet title actions are jurisdictional and may prevent the statute from running. Other cases have suggested that even in the absence of strict compliance, the statute of limitations will begin to run when the purchaser at the tax sale takes possession of the property.

In this case, the purchaser never took possession because he was unable to evict the tenant. That fact, and the fact that the property was not properly posted with a notice of the sale, led to the Court’s conclusion that the two-year statute did not run.

The moral to this story is simple: always discuss tax sale titles with your friendly and smart title insurance company underwriter. They generally keep up with these cases, no matter how tedious. **

*The Forfeited Land Commission of Bamberg County v. Beard, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5570 (June 20, 2018).

**Please see footnote 5 in this case. It’s rare that a footnote in an appellate case can make a lawyer cry (unless the lawyer lost the case), but this footnote summarized the exemplary career of the late Tanya Gee, who died in 2016. This case would have been her first case as a temporary justice on the Court of Appeals. After her death, the appellate process had to begin again. Rest in peace, Justice Gee!

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SCOTUS refuses to review SC Episcopal property dispute

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It has been close to a year that I wrote in this blog that I was thankful to be a real estate lawyer as I attempted to decipher the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 77-page opinion involving the Episcopal Church published on August 2, 2017*. I continue to be thankful that my mission is limited to the real estate issues in this difficult case because the United States Supreme Court refused to review that ruling on June 11. We are left with the difficult opinion issued in Columbia, and church officials and members from both sides of the dispute are left to sort out their on-going concerns in light of that ruling.

I don’t have to solve the mystery of the rights of gays in churches. I don’t have to ascertain whether the “liberal mainline” members or the “ultra-conservative breakaway” members make up the real Episcopal Church.  I don’t have to delve into the depths of neutral principles of law vs. ecclesiastical law. I don’t have to figure out who will own the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

The real estate issues are sufficiently thorny to occupy our collective real estate lawyer brains, but I am attempting here to boil those issues down to a manageable few words for all of us.

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News articles refer to the properties as being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. The historic value of the properties, including St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s of Charleston, is also quite significant.  I assume a petition for rehearing will ensue as well as an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Nothing is settled at this point. Let’s not try to insure these titles anytime soon.

The controversy began more than five years ago when 39 local parishes in eastern South Carolina left the Episcopal Church over, among other issues, the rights of gays in church. Since then, the two sides have been involved in a battle over the church’s name, leadership and real estate.

Interestingly, prior to the ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court, the national church had offered a settlement to the breakaway parishes that would have allowed them to retain their properties if they gave up the name and leadership issues. That settlement offer was apparently summarily rejected.

South Carolina’s ruling upheld the Episcopal Church’s position that it is a hierarchal church rather than a congregational church in which the vote of church membership can determine the fate of real property. It also orders the breakaway group to return 29 properties to the national church. Seven parishes may maintain their independence.

The position of the properties turns on whether the local parishes agreed to be bound by the “Dennis Canon” which was enacted in 1979 and provided, in effect, that real property of a parish is held in trust for the national church and the local Diocese, subject to the power of the local parish over the property, so long as the parish remains a part of the national church and Diocese. No evidence was found in the records of the seven parishes that those parishes ever agreed to be bound by the Dennis Canon. The other 29 properties were the subject of documentation to the effect that the local churches intended to hold the property in trust for the denomination. The opinion did not uphold the Dennis Canon in and of itself. Explicit recognition of the Canon was required.

That, in short, was the result of the 77-page opinion on real estate lawyers. We will need watch for a potential settlement. In the meantime, we will sit tight and not involve ourselves in sales and mortgages of these properties.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I am always thankful to be a real estate lawyer!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27731, August 2, 2017.

Unpublished easement case takes a common sense approach

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Access to Lake Murray must have been intended

Although an unpublished opinion has no precedential value, an easement case* decided by the Court of Appeals on May 16 takes an interesting, common sense approach that may be useful for our analysis of future easement issues.

Hamilton Duncan and Ray and Elizabeth Drasites are owners of two adjacent properties located on an inland cove of Lake Murray. Mr. and Mrs. Drasites’ property abuts the water and is situated between the lake and Mr. Duncan’s one acre parcel. Both parties acquired their respective properties with reference to an easement granting Duncan a right of access over the Drasites’ property to a terminus at the 360 foot contour of Lake Murray.

Lake Murray

Testimony before the Master-in-Equity established that the 360 foot contour is Lake Murray’s high water mark and represents the boundary between the lake, managed by South Carolina Electric and Gas Company (SCE&G), and privately-owned property.

Master-in-Equity Strickland ordered that Duncan has an easement for the purpose of accessing Lake Murray, that Duncan can use the easement to launch small watercraft, and that the Drasites are enjoined from interfering with the easement. The Drasites acknowledged the existence of an easement for a road running generally along the southeastern boundary of their property, but they argued that the length of the easement did not extend to the lake.

The Court of Appeals indicated that common sense and good faith are the leading touchstones in determining the extent of an easement and that consideration must be given to what is essentially necessary to the enjoyment of the dominant property. The Court stated it did not believe it was the grantor’s intent to give the dominant estate a right of access just shy of the lake depending on whether the water level is high or low or for a dirt road traversing the southern boundary of the Drasites’ property but just short of the lake.

The Court held that Duncan is responsible for bearing the cost of maintaining the easement, and any improvements must be subject to the approval of SCE&G. And the Court reminded Duncan that an easement is limited to a use that is reasonably necessary and convenient and as little burdensome to the servient estate as possible. Stated another way, the Court held that the owner of an easement has all the rights incident or necessary to its property enjoyment, but nothing more.

I always prefer a common sense approach. There was apparently little evidence of the extent of the easement since no survey was prepared contemporaneously with it. With the exception of the plats prepared for litigation, all plats in the parties’ chains of title show the easement terminating at the waters of Lake Murray. The Drasites based their argument on a plat outside the chains of title which depicted the road short of the lake. The Court was not impressed with that evidence.

 

* Duncan v. Drasites, Unpublished Opinion No. 2018-UP-211 (May 16,2018)

 

Despite a decade of litigation by lot owners….

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Two Surfside golf courses are being redeveloped into residential lots

The North and South courses at Deer Track Golf Resort in Deerfield Plantation have been closed for more than ten years and are finally being redeveloped as residential lots. Adjacent lot owners waged class actions in Horry County seeking to have the use of the properties in question restricted to golf courses or open spaces. While these battles were being waged in court, nature attempted to reclaim the properties. One property owner testified that his views changed from overlooking a manicured golf course to overlooking a “sea of weeds”.

Similar battles have been successful in other parts of the country. The cases are fact intensive and turn on the law of implied easements, which, of course, varies widely from state to state. Plats showing golf courses may provide rights in adjacent lot owners, depending on the recorded documents, the sales program and the law of implied easements in the location.

golf course

Let’s look at how the Deerfield Plantation cases were decided. First, the facts:  The golf courses and surrounding residential subdivisions were originally developed beginning in the late 1970’s. The plats contained notes to the effect that the streets were dedicated for public use but the golf courses were to be maintained privately and were specifically not dedicated to public use.

The covenants gave the lot owners no rights, property, contractual, or otherwise, in the golf courses. A Property Report that was delivered to all prospective lot purchasers described the costs of golf memberships, which were not included in lot prices, and stated that to be allowed to use the golf courses, members would be required to pay initial dues and annual dues and fees. The real estate agents made it clear during the sales program that the mere purchase of a lot did not give a lot owner any right or entitlement to use the golf courses. The deeds of the lots did not convey any easements or other interests in the golf courses.

One plaintiff, who was also a real estate agent, testified that he was never told the golf courses would operate in perpetuity and that the real estate agents never told other potential purchasers that the golf courses would always exist on the properties.

What caused the golf courses to fail? When the golf courses opened, there were 30 – 40 golf courses in the Myrtle Beach area. By the time the golf courses closed, there were nearly 125 courses. Property taxes in the golf courses increased from $7,800 per year to $90,000 per year.  And then the economy tanked. These three factors have occurred across the country to varying extents.

Now, let’s look at South Carolina law. In one of the cases, a 38-page Order of Thomas J. Wills, Special Referee, examined the law of implied easements in South Carolina. I’m summarizing and eliminating the citations for this brief discussion.

The Order states that implied easements are not favored by the courts in South Carolina and must be strictly construed. The intent of the parties controls the existence and scope of implied easements, and the best evidence of that intent is the recorded documents. While case law in South Carolina is clear that lot owners in subdivisions hold easements in streets shown on plats by which their lots are sold, the order states that this rule does not extend beyond access, which is necessary and expected for residential purposes. Finally, the order states that no implied easements in views, breezes, light or air exist in this state.

Finally, these golf courses will be redeveloped into new residential subdivisions. Will we see more of this litigation in South Carolina? Probably. While the law in South Carolina appears generally to favor redevelopment in these cases, there is no doubt that the facts in some of the situations may give rise to implied easements in adjacent lot owners, even in the face of our law.

HOA foreclosures are being challenged on multiple levels in SC

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The HOA won in a recent Court of Appeals case

In January, I blogged about a Federal class action lawsuit filed in Charleston seeking to invalidate non-condo foreclosures by owners’ associations. You can read that blog here but the short version is that the suit challenges foreclosures on the grounds that these non-profit corporations don’t have the power to create liens for unpaid assessments prior to obtaining judicial judgments. Condominium associations established through the Horizontal Property Regime Act have statutory authority to create liens, but the power of non-condo projects is created by restrictive covenants. We’ll have to wait and see how that suit turns out, but if the plaintiffs there are successful, foreclosure practice will change drastically in South Carolina.

gavel house

Our Court of Appeals decided a case* on April 4th that could have made drastic changes in another way. In fact, Richland County’s Master-in-Equity, Joseph Strickland, stated in his order that “the practice of homeowners’ association foreclosures would effectively be eradicated if (the Plaintiffs’) position came to bear.”

This appeal was handled by the law office of my friend, Brian Boger, a Columbia lawyer and well-known champion of consumers’ rights. The appeal argued that the $3,036 successful bid “shocked the conscience” and violated equitable principles. The parties agreed that the home was valued at $128,000. There was a mortgage balance of $66,004, leaving equity of $61,996. The Hales did not argue that there were irregularities in foreclosure process, but instead argued that the low bid should have encouraged the Master to use his gavel to “do equity”.

Comparing the successful bid to their equity using the “Equity Method”, the Hales argued that the bid amounted to 4.8% of the fair market value of the property. The HOA argued, using the “Debt Method”, that the bid must be added to the senior mortgage balance to judge its sufficiency because the successful bidder would have to pay the senior mortgage to have good title. In this case, using the Debt Method, the bid amounted to 54.94% of the fair market value. The Court of Appeals agreed that the Debt Method was the proper method for considering a senior encumbrance in a foreclosure.

The Court found no South Carolina cases that expressly weighed the two methods of judging a bid, but pointed to prior cases that considered the amount of a senior mortgage in the determination and found a 3.15% bid sufficient. One reason the Court of Appeals prefers the Debt Method is that it will result in “fewer set asides”.  In other words, the Court of Appeals is not interested in upsetting the foreclosure practice applecart at this point.

Justice Lockemy dissented, stating that he thought it improper to give a judicial sale buyer credit for assuming a debt it is not legally required to pay. He said the Court’s decision could create a perverse circumstance where a judicial sale bidder purchases property for a de minimis amount simply to capitalize on rental revenue until the senior lienholder forecloses. The majority called this argument a solution in search of a problem because there was no evidence that the successful bidder in this case was engaged in such a scheme and because the successful bidder must satisfy the mortgage to obtain clear title.

Foreclosure practice in South Carolina remains the same…for now.

* Winrose Homeowners’ Association, Inc. v. Hale, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5549 (April 4, 2018)

Drafting survivorship deeds continues to be a concern

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Pay attention to tricky South Carolina law!

This blog has addressed the issue of drafting survivorship deeds previously. This issue comes back up today because the South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Practices Section’s listserv discussed this issue, in part, last week.

The thread began with a question about whether a tenancy in common with a right of survivorship is a recognized estate in South Carolina. I believe that the concern arose from some drafting liberties taken by attorneys with these deeds. In my opinion, to create a survivorship deed in South Carolina, the drafter should follow the case or the statute exactly. And it is my opinion that if the drafter follows the case or statute exactly, then a valid survivorship estate is created, and that estate will avoid probate for the property in question at the first death.

Let’s take a look at the case and the statute.

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More than a decade has elapsed since our Supreme Court surprised dirt lawyers with Smith v. Cutler,* the case that told us there were already in place two survivorship forms of ownership in South Carolina. We apparently missed that day in law school! These two forms of ownership are joint tenancy (which we knew and loved) and tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship (which slipped by us somehow). This is a mini-history lesson about how we got to this state of the law and a reminder for dirt lawyers to carefully draft deeds.

Under the common law in South Carolina, tenancy in common is the favored form of ownership. A deed to George Clooney and Amal Clooney (whether George and Amal are married or not) will result in a tenancy in common. At the death of George or Amal, the deceased’s fifty percent interest in the property will pass by will or intestacy laws. Joint tenancy was not favored in South Carolina, and there was no tenancy by the entirety that would have saved the property from probate (and creditors) for a married couple.

A rather convoluted 1953 case** interpreted a deed that intended to create a tenancy by the entirety as creating a shared interest in property between husband and wife referred to as a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of ownership. This is the case that the Smith v. Cutler Court referred to as creating the form of ownership we missed.

It’s not technically true that all of us missed this form of ownership. Some practitioners did use the language from the 1953 case to create a survivorship form of ownership. The magic language is “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney for and during their joint lives and upon the death of either of them, then to the survivor of them, his or her heirs and assigns forever in fee simple.”  Other practitioners routinely used the common law language: “to George Clooney and Amal Clooney as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.”

Conveying title from a person to himself and another person establishing survivorship was not possible in South Carolina prior to 1996 because the old common law requirement of unities of title could not be met. To create a survivorship form of ownership, the property owner conveyed to a straw party, who would then convey to the husband and wife, complying with the unities of title requirement and establishing survivorship.

A 1996 statutory amendment to §62-2-804 rectified this problem by providing that a deed can create a right of survivorship where one party conveys to himself and another person. The straw party is no longer needed. This statute was given retroactive effect.

In 2000, our legislature added §27-7-40, which provides that a joint tenancy may be created, “in addition to any other method which may exist by law” by the familiar words “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common”.  The statute addresses methods for severing joint tenancies which typically results in a tenancy in common. For example, unless the family court decides otherwise, a divorce severs a joint tenancy held by husband and wife, vesting title in them as tenants in common.  A deed from a joint tenant to another severs the joint tenancy. A conveyance of the interest of a joint tenant by a court severs the joint tenancy.

Following the enactment of §27-7-40, most practitioners used the language set out in the statute to create a joint tenancy, “as joint tenants with rights of survivorship and not as tenants in common.” Five years later, Smith v. Cutler required us to examine our drafting practices with fresh eyes. The court held that a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship is capable of being defeated by the unilateral act of one tenant, but a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not capable of being severed by a unilateral act and is also not subject to partition.

Real estate lawyers in the resort areas in our state are often asked to draft survivorship deeds because couples from other states are accustomed to tenancy by the entirety. Until Smith v. Cutler, most practitioners did not believe different estates were created by the different language commonly in use. We believed joint tenancy was created in both cases.

Now, clients should be advised about the different estates and should choose the form of ownership they prefer. I’ve discussed this issue with many lawyers who advise married couples to create the indestructible form of ownership under the case. Others who seek survivorship are often advised to create joint tenancy under the statute.  I see many deeds from the midlands and upstate that use the traditional tenancy in common form of ownership. I’ve heard estate planners prefer tenancy in common so the distribution at death can be directed by will. Lawyers who draft deeds for consumers need to be aware of and need to address the various forms of ownership with their clients.

One final thought on the survivorship issue in South Carolina. Do we now have a form of ownership that protects property from creditors of one of the owners? If a tenancy in common with an indestructible right of survivorship is not subject to partition, then it may not be reachable by the creditors of one of the owners. Let me know if you see a case that makes such a determination. It would be an interesting development.

If anyone on the listserv has different opinions from those stated here, I would love to hear them. The real estate bar in South Carolina would love to hear them, too!

 

 

 

*366 S.C. 546, 623 S.E.2d 644 (2005)

**Davis v. Davis, 223 S.C. 182, 75 S.E.2d 45 (1953)

You learn something new every day!

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Question gives insight into IRS collection procedures against JTROS properties

In August of last year, an excellent South Carolina real estate lawyer raised this issue with Underwriting Counsel in our office:

The property owners are Sally Seller and Samuel Seller, as joint tenants with right of survivorship. Sally Seller died January 7, 2017. A federal tax lien was filed against Sally Single, Mrs. Seller’s maiden name, March 3, 2014. Mr. and Mrs. Seller were married in April 20, 2015. Please confirm that we should either pay off this lien at closing or obtain a release from the IRS.

Title insurance underwriting is all about pre-closing risk prevention and risk management, and I always joke that underwriting is more of an art than a science. This is true, in part, because few issues in the law are black and white. Most lawyers will confirm that a fair amount of gray area exists in most legal questions. But I digress.

The truth is that when a trusted, intelligent real estate lawyer calls her friendly South Carolina title insurance underwriter and says, in effect, “I should deal with this title problem at closing, shouldn’t I?”… that is an easy answer! Unless the Underwriter knows of a magic solution to eliminate the title issue, the friendly title insurance Underwriter will almost always respond, “Yes, please take care of that issue at closing.”  That’s exactly what our Underwriter did in this case last August.

Around Halloween, a follow-up question was raised:

The sellers’ attorney has been working on obtaining a satisfaction for the IRS lien, but the IRS has told him that the lien will not be released or satisfied because the taxpayer is deceased. IRS Agent Arnold Adams (IRS ID#10000797284)* referred me to Notice 2003-60. The IRS agent further said it will not file a release of lien for the convenience of title insurance companies and mortgage lenders**, but that the tax lien upon the death of a joint tenant is extinguished and not collectable on the basis of U.S. vs. Craft*** and its application.

The IRS notice linked above is entitled “Collection Issues Related to Entireties Property”. Every South Carolina dirt lawyer knows that we do not have a tenancy by the entirety form of ownership in South Carolina. If we don’t have that form of ownership, then does this IRS Notice have any application in South Carolina?

Married couples in South Carolina can own properties as tenants in common, joint tenants with right of survivorship or joint tenants with an indestructible right of survivorship under Smith v. Cutler.****

Several years ago, my friend and fellow South Carolina dirt lawyer, Paul Dillingham, called me to twist my arm to write an article with him for the Bar’s South Carolina Lawyer magazine, linked here, about a couple of deed drafting traps that were troubling him. In that article, we questioned whether Smith v. Cutler had created, in effect, a tenancy by the entirety form of ownership. That case dealt with property owned by couple pursuant to a deed with this language:

“for and during their joint lives and upon the death of either of them, then to the survivor of them, his or her heirs and assigns forever in fee simple”

The case held that property owned pursuant to the quoted language cannot be partitioned. If the property cannot be partitioned by the creditor of one owner, then the IRS Notice would have application in South Carolina. Apparently the IRS agent who was questioned for this closing believes the notice does apply in the Palmetto State, but please note that the question before the IRS agent didn’t deal with the Smith v. Cutler form of ownership. It dealt with a standard joint tenancy with the right of survivorship.

Did the IRS Agent give our South Carolina good advice? Would all IRS agents give the same advice? Can we ignore this IRS lien for the purposes of closing? What do you think?

This is fictitious name and number. Don’t try to contact this IRS agent!

** That wasn’t very friendly!

*** 545 U.S. 274 (2002)

**** 366 S.C. 546, 623 S.E.2d 644 (2005)