Feds extend footprint of shell game again

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Will this obligation eventually extend to South Carolina?

shell game

Secretly purchasing expensive real estate continues to be a popular method for criminals to launder dirty money. Setting up shell entities allows these criminals to hide their identities. When the real estate is later sold, the money has been miraculously cleaned.

In early 2016, The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the United States Department of the Treasurer issued an order that required the four largest title insurance companies to identify the natural persons or “beneficial owners” behind the legal entities that purchase some expensive residential properties.

At that time, the reach of the project extended to the Borough of Manhattan in New York City, and Dade County, Florida, where Miami is located. In those two locations, the designated title insurance companies were required to disclose to the government the names of buyers who paid cash for properties over $1 million in Miami and over $3 million in Manhattan. The natural persons behind the legal entities had to be reported for any ownership of at least 25 percent in an affected property.

By order effective August 28, 2016, all title insurance underwriters, in addition to their affiliates and agents, were required to be involved in the reporting process, and the footprint of the project was extended.

The targeted areas and their price thresholds as of August 28, 2016 were:

  • Borough of Manhattan, New York; $3 million;
  • Boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Borough of Staten Island, New York; $1.5 million;
  • Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, Florida; $1 million;
  • Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Diego Counties, California; $2 million; and
  • Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas; $500,000.

By order effective September 22, 2017, wire transfers were included, and the footprint of the project will include transactions over $3 million in the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Although the initial project was termed temporary and exploratory, FinCEN has indicated that the project is helping law enforcement identify possible illicit activity and is also informing future regulatory approaches. The current order extends through March 20, 2018.

We have no way of knowing whether or when this program may be expanded to South Carolina, but it is entirely likely that expensive properties along our coast are being used in money laundering schemes. We will keep a close watch on this program for possible expansion

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The Episcopal Church case is out; It will take more than faith to deed, mortgage and insure church properties

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Today, I am thankful to be a real estate lawyer. As I attempt to decipher the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 77-page opinion involving the Episcopal Church published on August 2,* my mission is limited to the real estate issues.

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.

charleston episcopal churches

St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Episcopal Churches, Downtown Charleston, SC 

 

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 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, 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.

Wednesday’s ruling upholds 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, is the impact of the 77-page opinion on real estate lawyers. We will need to watch for a possible rehearing, appeal periods and 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.

The Quicken decision is out

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It’s not what dirt lawyers wanted or expected

The South Carolina Supreme Court never ceases to amaze when it decides real estate cases. Dirt lawyers seldom know what to expect. We read the precedents. We attend the hearings. We listen to the Justices’ questions. We believe we get a glimpse of what they may be thinking. But we miss the mark. Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided the much anticipated Quicken case*, and if I had predicted the top five possible outcomes, I would not have come close to the actual decision.

I fully expected a 3-2 decision in either direction. But it is a 5-0 strongly written decision. It is a decision that was written to dispose of the controversy. It is a decision that was written to deny the possibility of reconsideration.

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This is an unauthorized practice of law case brought in the Court’s original jurisdiction. The case was assigned to Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein as Special Referee to take evidence and issue a report. Judge Goodstein held a two-week trial and issued a report finding, essentially, that no South Carolina licensed lawyer quarterbacked (my word) the mostly Internet-based residential refinance closings. In the facts recited in Judge Goodstein’s report, lawyers were peripherally involved in all of the steps required by State v. Buyers Service Co.** and its progeny, but no lawyer was actually involved in a way that the interest of the borrower was protected.

(Summarizing the prior decisions, the steps requiring lawyers are: (1) document preparation; (2) title search; (3) closing; (4) recording; and (5) disbursement.)

The Supreme Court somehow reviewed the same record and found that lawyers were involved and used their professional judgment in each step. The facts recited in the Court’s decision were not recognizable from the facts recited by Judge Goodstein’s report. The Court completely rejected the report and apparently decided that a finding of UPL under the circumstances would “mark an unwise and unnecessary intrusion into the marketplace”. “Simply put,” the Court stated, “we believe requiring more attorney involvement in cases such as this would belie the Court’s oft-stated assertion that UPL rules exist to protect the public, not lawyers.”

Most South Carolina dirt lawyers were hoping the Court would find a South Carolina licensed lawyer must be at the center of each closing, overseeing each step, and insuring that the consumer client’s interests were protected in each step. That is definitely not what we got.

There is, however, some good news in this decision. The Court made the clearest implication to date (without an explicit holding) that Buyers Service and its progeny may not apply in the commercial arena. The Court repeatedly stated that the context of this case is the residential refinance arena. I have discussed this case with several commercial lawyers to ascertain whether they are now comfortable to forego certifications that other South Carolina licensed lawyers are involved in the closing steps that are not under their control. They seem to feel slightly more comfortable, but not comfortable enough to let go of that step. Perhaps the passage of time will help.

Other good news is that, despite the facts recited by Judge Goodstein to the contrary, the Court clearly stated that lawyers were involved and used their professional judgment in each required step. The out-of-state entities who do business here should make sure their processes include this professional judgment in each step of the closing.

After reading this case a dozen times, I’ve decided that no law has changed. Nothing will change in our local processes. Nothing will likely change dramatically in the processes of the out-of-state entities who do business here. If I had not read Judge Goodstein’s report and if I had not attended the Supreme Court’s hearing, I would probably not be shocked with this result.

I would love hear what you think.

*Boone v. Quicken Loans, Inc., South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27727, July 19, 2017

** State v. Buyers Serv. Co., 292 S.C. 426, 357 S.E.2d 15 (1987)

It’s suitable to be a Lincoln Lawyer in SC

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…at least when it comes to using a PO Box address in lawyer advertising

lincoln lawyer

Ethics Advisory Opinion 17-07 fielded a question from a solo practitioner with a virtual law office. He practices wherever his smart phone and laptop are, which, at any given moment, may be his home, a coffee shop, a park, his car or his vacation spot. His practice generates very little paper, and he keeps that paper at his home. He meets with clients at their places of business or at third-party meeting spaces. He uses a post office box address for all business mail.

He does not actively advertise his practice beyond a single online directory listing, but he is considering increasing his web presence for advertising purposes, and he doesn’t want to disclose his home address. His question was whether the use of a post office box address in advertising materials satisfies the requirement in Rule 7.2 that advertising communications must include the office address of at least one lawyer responsible for its content.

The Ethics Advisory Committee looked North for authority and cited an opinion from North Carolina* which stated: “…(R)equiring a street address in all legal advertising has proved problematic, particularly as the number of lawyers working from home offices or operation in virtual law practices has increased. The requirement is no longer practical or necessary to avoid misleading the public or to insure that a lawyer responsible for the advertisement can be located by the State Bar.”

The Committee also noted that the Bar accepts post office addresses as lawyers’ addresses and the Supreme Court accepts post office addresses in its Attorney Information System (AIS) as a part of the “official contact information”.

The Committee stated that use of a post office address qualifies as an “office address” for the purposes of Rule 7.2(d) provided the post office address is on file at the lawyer’s current mailing address in the lawyer’s listing in the AIS.

Interestingly, though, the Committee noted that Rule 7.2(h) also imposes a geographic location disclosure requirement, which was not addressed by this opinion.  Here is the text of that portion of the Rule:

“(h) All advertisements shall disclose the geographic location, by city or town, of the office in which the lawyer or lawyers who will actually perform the services advertised principally practice law. If the office location is outside a city or town, the county in which the office is located must be disclosed. A lawyer referral service shall disclose the geographic area in which the lawyer practices when a referral is made.”

This Lincoln Lawyer may have to come back to obtain an answer to that issue!

*2012 N.C. Formal Eth. Adv. Op. 6 at 2.

Despicable Acts: Absentee property owners can be targets of fraud

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Despicable acts

And real estate lawyers may be the best minions to prevent these crimes!

Imagine this scenario: Lucy Wilde’s family owns a farm in rural Orangeburg County, South Carolina. Since the sudden death of Lucy’s husband, Felonius Gru in 2007, no one has farmed the property. The fields are sitting fallow awaiting the opening of the estate and the division of the property among and Felonius’ heirs, including Lucy. The relatives have all fled small-town living to join the Anti-Villain League, so no one is available to literally mind the farm, and no one is in a hurry to settle the estate.

Enter Balthazar Bratt, a fraudster from Miami who sees the vacant property, searches the public records and learns the property is owned by the late Felonius Gru. Bratt also learns the property is ripe for development because it is located near the prime corridor between Charleston and Columbia, and very near Interstate access.

How can Bratt take advantage of this scenario while the Anti-Villain League employed family members are not paying attention? Absentee owners of real property are often the targets of criminals who pose as true owners offering the property for sale or as collateral for a new loan. These fraudsters may sell or refinance the property and abscond with the sale proceeds or strip any equity in the property with a new loan. The true owner has no idea the property is the subject of a real estate transaction.

In our fictional account, if Bratt was able to ascertain through the public records that Felonius Gru was deceased, a good title examiner should be able to use the same sleuthing methods.  If rural Orangeburg County is not your stomping grounds, as we say in the South, you might hire a title examiner who does have experience in the locale. In small towns in South Carolina, people know each other!

Another tip to fight criminals like Bratt is to compare the mailing address provided by the seller or borrower to the tax bill. While this step may not help in an estate situation, it may very well reveal an absentee owner located in a different address than the one provided by the fraudster.  If the address is different from the address provided to you or the lender, send a letter to the address shown on the tax bill. Your letter might simply suggest that you are happy to be of service to the buyer in the transaction and that if the seller is unaware of the situation, he should have his attorney contact you. That letter should get the attention of an absentee and clueless property owner.

Another tip is to compare signatures of the seller or borrower against documents in the public records. While we are not expected to be handwriting experts, we can spot obvious forgeries. I remember a war story from long ago where one person signed in seven spots in a deed, for the five owners and the two witnesses. The alert closing attorney called an immediate halt to the potentially disastrous real estate transaction!

A well-known and well-used technique that often works is to obtain and carefully review picture identifications for everyone who signs documents in your office. Also, do not accept an assignment of proceeds. Make sure proceeds are paid to the seller or borrower of record only.

And finally, give yourself and your staff members permission to carefully and slowly consider every aspect of your closings. Staff members should be encouraged to be cautious and suspicious and to discuss their concerns with each other or with an attorney in the office.  If the closing attorney needs a sounding board, she should call her friendly title insurance company lawyer.  I can’t count the number of times someone has called me, explained a situation, and before I could even respond, said, “oh, that’s a problem, isn’t it?”

minions

Sometimes just explaining the situation out loud to another person makes the problems crystal clear!

Be careful out there!

The hazards of drafting survivorship deeds for consumers

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Pay attention to tricky South Carolina law!

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! The 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 as 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. 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.

 

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

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

 

How to cure a defective deed

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Why South Carolina should consider a legal specialty in real estate.

The Real Estate Practices Council of the South Carolina Bar is considering petitioning our Supreme Court to create a specialty for the practice of real estate law. Two committees have been formed, one to consider residential real estate as a specialty and the other to consider commercial real estate as a practice specialty. If you have ideas that may help, please pass them along to me!

One reason for consulting a real estate lawyer might be for assistance in curing a defective deed. It is impossible to list all the types of defects that appear in deeds of record. The list grows every day! Some of the most common defects are property description discrepancies, grantor and grantee name discrepancies, out-of-state forms that do not comply with South Carolina statutory requirements, right of survivorship attempts that fail, discrepancies in ownership percentages, failure to recite consideration, grantor signature discrepancies, and authority issues of seller entities.

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Curing defective deeds will often require corrective deeds or quitclaim deeds from parties with outstanding interests. Note that corrective deeds are exempt from the deed recording fees imposed by §12-24-10 et seq. of the Carolina Code. See, specifically, §12-24-40(12). With corrective deeds, it may be necessary to obtain a deed back from the grantee. An example would be a deed from the developer to Richard Roe for lot 35, where Mr. Roe actually bought and occupied lot 34. To cure this problem, in addition to obtaining a deed from the developer to Mr. Roe of lot 34, Mr. Roe would need to convey lot 35 back to the developer. I continue to be amazed at the number of real estate professionals who think this step can be skipped, and that a corrective deed will somehow get the title back for the other lot. Also remember that mortgages may have to be re-executed or otherwise corrected once the deed issue is cured.

I am often asked whether the lawyer can “fix” the problem on the original deed and re-record it without the involvement of the parties. The answer is a strong “no”. The grantor must at least initial any changes. The more serious the problem, the more likely it will be that a corrective deed will be needed and that the grantor as well as the grantee will have to be involved.

When a deed discrepancy is discovered after the title has been conveyed again, the question often arises whether the corrective deed should run to the original grantee, and whether that would create the necessity for deeds from each grantor to each grantee in the chain of title after the problem. I often suggest that the corrective deed be given to the current property owner. The participation of intervening property owners is not needed.

Deed reformation actions are possible, and foreclosures often include additional causes of action for deed reformation to correct legal descriptions and other mistakes. Title insurance companies are often responsible to pay for these additional causes of action.

With these difficulties to be faced, don’t you think real estate practice as a specialty is a good idea?