Is your client in the market for timber?

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Here’s what you’ll need to know to get started

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It’s always good to start with the law. In South Carolina, the case is, believe it or not, a 1938 grand larceny case.* It turns out that stealing standing timber is not grand larceny because standing timber is considered to be a fixture. The proper charge would be trespass.

Once the timber is severed from the real estate, however, it can be the subject of a grand larceny charge. What happens, you ask, if the criminal himself severs the timber and carries it away in a continuous act? That, my friends, is grand larceny. Even the South Carolina Supreme Court suggested this distinction may be subtle and illogical.

Now that we have exhausted my knowledge of subtle and illogical criminal law, let’s look at a few things dirt lawyers can understand. We draw from this case the proposition that standing timber is real estate in South Carolina.

Timber, like all real estate, should be conveyed by a deed. A seller might also reserve timber in a deed of the real estate to a third party. This would be similar to reserving an easement or reserving mineral rights.

The definition of “land” in a title insurance policy would include the timber growing on the land because the fee simple title holder owns all the physical elements (the “bundle of rights”, as we learned in law school) of the land. To insure land where the timber has been reserved, an exception would be taken for the timber.

From time to time, a title insurance company may be asked to insure timber. Only standing timber is insurable. Downed, fallen or cut trees would become personal property and no longer insurable in a title insurance policy. It might be problematic to insure future growth, trees seeded after a conveyance and timber sold expressly as “perpetual”. Consult your title insurance company before you get down into those weeds, so to speak.

Be careful about access issues. Timber roads are notoriously tricky, so pay careful attention to the description and ownership of real estate where the road is located. Often, GPS descriptions may be used to describe timber roads. Your client must be able to access the timber legally. The deed should grant the rights to cut and transport timber as well as the right of access.

Be careful about survey issues. You will typically not insure the acreage, and you may, again, face the problem of only having a GPS description. You might be the bad guy who has to require a survey.

You will typically take exception to the rights of others to use the land, as well as the terms and conditions of the timber deed.

Finally, determine whether a separate tax bill exists for the timber in order to prorate the correct tax amount.

You will likely want to involve your friendly title insurance company underwriter early and often if you become involved in a timber transaction.

 

 * State v. Collins, 288 S.C. 338, 199 S.E. 303 (1938).

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Development of precarious beach properties…

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Exciting for developers; problematic for environmentalists

A quick search the Internet for stories on “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a gorgeous but extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast. This link contains a picture.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in July of 2016 included a field trip to view this property, from a distance at least. (And let me put in a plug for the same seminar to be held in July of 2018. Stay tuned! It will be great!)

Real estate development is my bread and butter, but one quick look told me that property should not be developed. A fellow field tripper, however, pointed out that the south end of Pawleys Island, which has been developed for many years, is just as precarious.

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Image by www.whereverimayroamblog.com

An entity that fights these cases in our state is the South Carolina Environmental Law Project located in Pawleys Island. A recent case* fought by this entity was decided by the South Carolina Court of Appeals on September 27. This case involves a 4.62 acre tract of beachfront property on Kiawah Island, not far from Captain Sam’s Spit.

Here are greatly simplified facts in a very complicated case: the developer and the community association entered into a development agreement in 1994. That agreement covered many issues, one of which was the proposed conveyance from the developer to the community association of a ten-mile strip of beachfront property, basically, the entire length of the island. A deed consummated that conveyance in 1995. All of the property conveyed was undevelopable because of the State’s jurisdictional lines.

I didn’t learn the following fact from the case, but I learned it from one of the lawyers who was kind enough to speak with me. When the jurisdictional lines were redrawn by the State, the 4.62 acre tract became developable. The developer then took the position that the 1994 development agreement and the 1995 deed resulted from a mutual mistake, and that the parties never intended to include that tract.

The Master-in-Equity and Court of Appeals did not see it that way. Both found that the agreement and deed were unambiguous and that parole evidence of the intent of the parties was not allowable.

Simple enough, right? As the football prognosticator, Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friends.” If the litigation history of Captain Sam’s Spit is a barometer, litigation may continue for years over the 4.62 acre tract. Captain Sam’s Spit has been argued in the South Carolina Supreme Court four times. I understand one of the justices used the term “weary” to describe the reaction of the court to the most recent round in the battle.

Count on a petition for rehearing and an appeal in this case, at least. I’ll keep you posted!

*Kiawah Resort Associates, L.P. v. Kiawah Island Community Association, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5517 (September 27, 2016)

Reminder for dirt lawyers of a “secret lien” trap

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The sale of a majority of the assets of a business

Real estate lawyers despise unrecorded liens. I like to refer to them as secret liens. One such trap for the unwary dirt lawyer in South Carolina is the state tax lien imposed by Code §12-54-124. This statute was effective June 18, 2003, and I can vividly remember the day we first read it and scratched our heads about what it meant.

The statute reads:

“In the case of the transfer of a majority of the assets of a business, other than cash, whether through a sale, gift, devise, inheritance, liquidation, distribution, merger, consolidation, corporate reorganization, lease or otherwise, any tax generated by the business which was due on or before the date of any part of the transfer constitutes a lien against the assets in the hands of a purchaser, or any other transferee, until the taxes are paid. Whether a majority of the assets have been transferred is determined by the fair market value of the assets transferred, and not by the number of assets transferred. The department may not issue a license to continue the business to the transferee until all taxes due the State have been settled and paid and may revoke a license issued to the business in violation of this section.” (Emphasis added.)

That’s it! Very simple, but how are those terms defined?  What’s a business? Is a rental house in Pawleys Island a business?  How can a purchaser’s lawyer know whether taxes are due to South Carolina by the seller?  How can a purchaser’s lawyer know whether the sale of one Subway store is a sale of the majority of the assets of a franchisee’s business?

I had a friend and former law school professor who worked at the Department of Revenue at the time, so I called him and told him we were struggling with the meaning of the statute.  He gave me two very valuable pieces of information: (1) the terms in the statute are defined as the Internal Revenue Code defines them; and (2) the Department of Revenue (DOR) was likely to give us some guidance at some future date.

We struggled with the definitions in the Internal Revenue Code and finally decided that unless a property is an owner-occupied single family residence, the closing attorney should consider that it might be a business asset.

Thankfully, in 2004, the DOR did provide guidance in the form of Revenue Ruling 04-2. The Revenue Ruling stated that the code section does not apply if the purchaser receives a certificate of compliance from the DOR stating that all tax returns have been filed and all taxes generated by the business have been paid. The certificate of compliance is valid, according to the Revenue Ruling, if it is obtained no more than thirty days before the sale.

This Revenue Ruling also authorized attorneys to accept Transferor Affidavits, in the form promulgated by the DOR, when the transferor can state that the assets subject to the transfer are not business assets or are less than a majority of the transferor’s business assets, based on fair market value, in the current and other planned transfers.

house mousetrapThe Revenue Ruling addressed whether a vacation home is a “business” by stating that it is not a business if IRC §280A limits the deduction of vacation home rental expenses. That’s a little deep for dirt lawyers, so the safe approach is to always obtain a certificate of compliance or Transferor Affidavit when you close on that rental home in Pawleys Island.

I like to remind dirt lawyers that they are not tax lawyers (unless they ARE tax lawyers). Generally, when you represent a purchaser in a real estate transaction, do not give the seller tax advice on how to complete a Transferor Affidavit.

Dear History, please stop repeating yourself!

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Hurricane Irma is the third disaster in two years for South Carolina

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Hurricane Irma is the third disaster to pummel our beloved state since this blog was launched in 2014. After the 1,000 year flood in October of 2015, Hurricane Matthew struck in October of 2016. Rebuilding is not complete from either catastrophe.

On my way to work this morning, I passed the remains of several businesses that were destroyed when Gills Creek flooded in 2015. Thankfully, I heard recently that Richland County is about to purchase those properties to turn them into green spaces. Other areas in and around Columbia are still in the rebuilding process or have been completely abandoned. Many homeowners have made their homes bigger, stronger and certainly taller. Others have given up and moved away.

Enter Irma. A friend joked on Facebook that we’re lucky here in South Carolina Irma passed us by. You would never know it passed us by from the many feet of water we’re seeing in pictures of Charleston, Beaufort, Hilton Head, Georgetown, Garden City and surrounding areas. And the pictures and video coming from Florida and the Caribbean, not to mention the pictures and video coming from the Hurricane Harvey disaster in Texas and Louisiana, all show unspeakable damage.

Our company’s home office is located in Jacksonville where surrounding streets are under water. Employees with power are trying to work remotely. Others are out of commission.

A wise man in our building here in Columbia said to me this morning that these disasters bring out the best and the worst in folks. There are looters, but there are many more heroes who have rescued their neighbors in boats. There are neighborhoods without power who are gathering in their streets for impromptu block parties. Chainsaws are chopping downed trees. Supplies and helping hands are being donated. Celebrities and charities are raising millions. I’d like to believe that we’re seeing much more good than bad in people.

Our hearts are breaking for those who have lost so much. Rebuilding will take time, resources and patience. Many have lost everything and are without insurance coverage. Millions are without power and water. Many are in shock.

Dirt lawyers are in an exceptional position to support clients who may not be familiar with the assistance available to them. We have all learned a lot in the last few years. I challenge each of us to continue to educate ourselves and to be available to offer the valuable advice our neighbors and others will need in the days ahead. Local, state and federal governments seem better prepared this time around and seem to be working better to coordinate efforts. Here is a link to the South Carolina Bar’s Key Assistance Numbers. South Carolinians are strong and resilient, and we are stronger and more resilient now than we were for the last disaster.

Let’s once again rise to the occasion, real estate lawyers, and provide the best advice available for our clients and friends who will need it as they sort out, clean up and rebuild.

Feds extend footprint of shell game again

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Will this obligation eventually extend to South Carolina?

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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

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.

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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)