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)

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Federal class action seeks to invalidate non-condo HOA foreclosures

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Is there authority for these foreclosures under SC law…or not?

On January 9, a lawsuit was filed in the Federal Court in Charleston seeking to certify a class of plaintiffs who have faced foreclosure in situations where the Horizontal Property Regime Act was not involved. In other words, the properties are not condominiums and are not subject to the statutory scheme that establishes lien and foreclosure rights in owners’ associations. The power to foreclose these properties is supported only by restrictive covenants, that is, only by contract.

subdivision

The complaint refers to a good faith estimate that one-third of all South Carolinians own property subject to restrictive covenants establishing owners’ associations, and those associations manage more than $100 billion in assets. Many of the properties are separate lots of land in contrast to “slices of air” in condominium projects.

The defendants in this class action suit include five homeowners’ associations in various counties in South Carolina, four law firms who represent the associations in their foreclosure actions, and five management companies who manage the business of the associations in various counties in South Carolina. All are said to be representative of the associations, law firms and management companies who do business across the state.

The class intends to exclude all associations governed by the Horizontal Property Regime Act. It also excludes employees, owners, officers, partners and management of the law firm and management defendants. The law firm and management defendants are alleged to be agents of the owners’ associations.

The main issue in the suit is whether non-condominium associations have the right to file liens and prosecute foreclosures for unpaid property assessments under South Carolina law. Underlying issues include whether the defendants have violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, whether they have interfered with the plaintiffs’ contracts with their mortgage holders, and whether they have the power to lawfully evict homeowners for unpaid assessments.

The owners’ associations are typically established as non-profit corporations, and the suit questions whether non-profit corporations have the power to create liens for unpaid dues or assessments prior to obtaining judicial judgments.

The suit accuses the defendants of seeking to use the equitable remedy of foreclosure in actions that seek monetary damages for contractual breaches. The inability to use equitable remedies to collect money damages is well established in South Carolina law, according to the complaint. The complaint further states that the remedy of foreclosure is used to frighten the plaintiffs to settle their claims to avoid losing their homes.

The law firm defendants were accused of violating Professional Conduct Rule 3.3 by making deceitful arguments to courts. The law firms were also accused of demanding fees that are not proportionate to the hours devoted to the files in violation of Rule 1.5.

Threatening communications and pressure tactics are allegedly used to settle claims, typically without the advice of counsel because the amounts in controversy are often so small that the homeowners are unable to obtain legal counsel on a cost-effective basis. Typically, according to the complaint, holders of first mortgages are not named in the HOA foreclosures. The homeowners continue to be obligated to make their mortgage payments despite being evicted from their homes by their owners’ associations.

The first cause of action is violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act on the theory that there is no right to use pre-suit liens or the equitable remedy of foreclosure by owners’ associations to collect damages in the form of past due assessments. The use of unjustified liens and foreclosures is alleged to constitute false, deceptive or misleading representations to collect debts.

The second cause of actions seeks a declaratory judgment that the activities of the defendants are unlawful. One point raised in this cause of action is that the homeowners are denied their statutory homestead exemption rights by the defendants’ actions.

The third cause of action is for intentional interference with the contractual relationship with the homeowners’ mortgage companies. The mortgage holders have a right to be named in actions that attempt to impair their interests in the subject properties, according to the complaint.

The complaint seeks actual, compensatory and consequential damages, in addition to punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. I can’t wait to see what happens with this one!

Airbnb in Sea Pines?

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Court of Appeals says “yes” under some circumstances

I wouldn’t have predicted it, based on the history of exclusive Sea Pines Plantation in Hilton Head, its extensive set of restrictive covenants and the aggressive efforts to enforce those restrictive covenants over the years. But our Court of Appeals approved an owner’s rental through Airbnb of a portion of a residence in a December 6, 2017 case*.

Mr. and Mrs. Wall bought their residence at 48 Planters Wood Drive in 1998. The second story of the home consists of a guest suite that is accessible only by an outside staircase. In 2012, the Walls began renting a room through Airbnb, an online rental broker. The Airbnb listing was titled “Hilton Head Organic B&B, Sea Pines”. The Walls cooked breakfast for their renters.

AirBnB

Community Services Associates, Inc. (CSA), the property owners’ association in power to enforce Sea Pines’ restrictive covenants, expressed concern about the Airbnb listing, and the Walls changed the listing to the “Whole House” category and began renting out the entire first floor of their home while living in the second-story guest suite. They also dropped the “Hilton Head Organic B&B, Sea Pines” title and stopped cooking breakfast for their renters.

CSA filed suit seeking temporary and permanent injunctions against the Walls because of their alleged operation of a “bed and breakfast” in their home and the rental of less than the entire residence.

Here are the operative provisions of the restrictions:

  1. All lots in said Residential Areas shall be used for residential purposes exclusively, No structure, except as hereinafter provided, shall be erected, altered, placed or permitted to remain on any lot other than one (1) detached single dwelling not to exceed two (2) stories in height and one small one-story building that may include a detached private garage and/or servant’s quarters, provided the use of such dwelling or accessory building does not overcrowd the site and provided further that such building is not used for any activity normally conducted as a business. Such assessor building may not be constructed prior to the main building.

  2. A guest suite or like facility without a kitchen may be included as part of the main dwelling or accessory building, but such suite may not be rented or leased except as part of the entire premises, including the main dwelling, and provided, however, that such guest suite would not result in over-crowding of the site.

CSA took the position that the restrictions authorized the short-term rental of the entire residence but not part of the residence, that the Walls were operating an offending bed and breakfast, and that the guest suite included a second kitchen.

At a hearing before the master-in-equity, Mr. Wall testified that the couple kept an induction plate, a toaster oven, and a mini-refrigerator in the guest suite, and they occasionally prepared their food and washed their dishes in the suite.

The master denied the motion for injunctive relief and dismissed CSA’s complaint.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that the dorm-style portable appliances used by the Walls did not create a kitchen. The Court held that the express terms of paragraph 6 require a residence with a guest suite to be rented in its entirety when the guest suite is rented out, but paragraphs 5 and 6 do not, by their express terms or by plain and unmistakable implication, require a residence with a guest suite to be rented in its entirety in every circumstance.

At best, according to the Court, paragraphs 5 and 6 are capable of two reasonable interpretations: (1) a residence with a guest suite must be rented in its entirety in every circumstance, or (2) the owners of a single family dwelling with a guest suite may stay in the guest suite themselves while renting out the remaining space. Because the latter interpretation least restrict the use of the property, the Court adopted that interpretation.

Understanding a little about the culture of Sea Pines, I will be surprised if we don’t hear more about this Airbnb issue in the future.

Is your client in the market for timber?

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

timber

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).

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.

pawleys-island-sc

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.