South Carolina Supreme Court issues final decision on Episcopal church real estate

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“This case is over” according to the court

Church schisms are tough in many ways, and the real estate issues are no exception. This week, the South Carolina Supreme Court filed an opinion* that it says finally resolves the real estate issues. In other words, the Court has decided who owns the real estate of the churches in dispute.

The dispute began in 2010 when the Lower Diocese of South Carolina, after doctrinal disputes, dissociated from the National Episcopal Church. The parties have been involved in extensive litigation in state and federal courts for the twelve years that have followed the dissociation. I am glad that I don’t have to figure out the doctrinal issues. The real estate issues are thorny enough.

My best advice to practicing real estate lawyers: when you are asked to close any transaction involving Episcopal church property, call your intelligent and friendly title insurance underwriter. In fact, call your underwriter when you deal with any church real estate transaction. They will stay current on the real estate issues involving churches.

The Court based its decision on which of the parishes adopted the national church’s “Dennis Cannon”. This church law provides that all real and personal property owned by a parish is held in trust for the national church.  The actions taken by each church with regard to the Dennis Cannon were examined.

Without belaboring the analysis, the following parishes will maintain their properties:

  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Pinopolis
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Philip, Charleston
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Michael, Charleston
  • Church of the Cross, Inc., Bluffton
  • The Church of the Epiphany, Eutawville
  • The Vestry and Church Warden of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St. Helena, Beaufort
  • Christ St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Conway
  • The Church of the Resurrection, Surfside
  • The Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, Radcliffeboro
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Paul’s Church, Summerville
  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Edisto Island
  • St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Bennettsville, Inc.
  • All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church, Inc., Florence
  • The Church of Our Savior of the Diocese of South Carolina, John’s Island
  • The Church of the Redeemer, Orangeburg

The properties of the following parishes are held in trust for the National Church:

  • The Church of the Good Shepherd, Charleston
  • The Church of the Holy Comforter, Sumter
  • St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Hartsville
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St John’s, John’s Island
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Jude’s Church of Walterboro
  • Saint Luke’s Church, Hilton Head
  • St. David’s Church, Cheraw
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Matthew (St. Matthews, Fort Motte)
  • The Vestries and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Andrew (Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston)
  • The Church of the Holy Cross, Stateburg
  • Trinity Church of Myrtle Beach
  • Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Charleston
  • Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of Christ Church, Mount Pleasant
  • St. James’ Church, James Island

I feel for all the parties involved. I am a United Methodist, and our international church authorities have been examining similar issues in recent years. We may see more church schism opinions in South Carolina and elsewhere. Stay in touch with your friendly title insurance company underwriter!

*The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28095 (April 20, 2022).

Check out “Arrived Homes” real estate investment platform

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Real estate has always been a significant investment option but shelling out the required funds may be cost prohibitive for all but the most affluent among us. Jeff Bezos and his partners may have solved this problem.

Check out the real estate investment platform Arrived Homes. Go to the site and listen to the quick explanation entitled “What is Arrive in 1 min”.  Very simply, an investor can buy “shares” of rental properties and collect the rental income attributable to those shares. If the economy holds out and real estate continues to appreciate, the properties (and the shares) will increase in value over time. The company intends to hold the properties for five to seven years before selling them and distributing the equity to the investors.

The business finds, buys and manages residential rental properties and offers shares of the properties to investors. Potential investors can browse and choose among available properties. Management includes locating tenants, maintenance, repairs, improvements as well as handling accounting and taxes.  A quick review reflects several properties in South Carolina.

An interesting Arrived approach is to encourage the tenants of the rental properties to become investors in the properties they occupy. The idea is to encourage the tenants to treat the properties as if they own them….because they do! The longer the lease the tenant signs, the larger the equity incentive.

Rental income is paid quarterly in the form of dividends. Investors can review their returns and potential appreciation in the user dashboard.

How does the company make its money? It charges two fees, a sourcing fee and an assets under management fee. The sourcing fee is paid up front and the assets under management fee is charged at 1% per year. Both fees as listed on each property’s “page”.  Costs are deducted from the rental income.

The site launched a little over a year ago and has experienced significant growth. One report indicates properties have been purchased valued at close to $40 million already. New properties are listed every couple of weeks, and many sell out quickly.  

The intent it to make investing in real estate as easy as investing in stocks with a minimum investment of only $100. It’s an interesting concept!

New fraud warning from Chicago Title

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It goes without saying that one of the most important partnerships for a real estate lawyer is a great title insurance company. I am biased, but in my opinion, there is no better title insurance company doing business in South Carolina than Chicago Title.

This week, a warning was issued from Chicago Title about a new and very specific fraud scheme that I want to share with all South Carolina practitioners.

Chicago Title received two reports last week of fraudsters apparently operating out of Houston. The fraudsters posed as owners of South Carolina properties and listed the properties for sale on Zillow. Mail away cash closings were scheduled with local real estate lawyers. In both cases, the fraudsters provided presumably fake identification and deeds to closing attorneys.

In the first case, the closing attorney very astutely foiled the scheme when he determined the signatures on the deed appeared suspicious. He contacted the New York notary who purportedly notarized the deed. She reported her seal had been stolen and used in at least one successful fraudulent scheme. The lawyer also learned from Federal Express that the deed had been sent from Houston rather than New York, where the seller was purportedly located. The transaction was stopped.

Unfortunately, the second transaction was not stopped.  This seller package also originated in Houston. The fraudster’s telephone number appears on Zillow listing for properties in multiple states. Houston law enforcement has been notified and is opening an investigation.

Any mail away closings should be particularly scrutinized. If you conduct a closing with an unfamiliar seller, you should be especially vigilant in confirming the identities of the parties. Use more than one set of eyes in your office! Anything that appears unusual should be examined carefully. Give your staff the flexibility to slow down and carefully examine each document. Tell them to bring any unusual document to you. Check behind your staff! A great real estate paralegal is invaluable, but we spent three years in law school learning to spot issues. Use those issue-spotting skills to foil these fraudsters!

Be careful and good luck out there!

Short-term rentals questioned in South Carolina cities

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Vrbo and Airbnb are two go-to websites to find interesting short-term rentals in vacation locations. Sometimes a cabin or house seems much more appropriate and fun than a hotel room for a family get-away. Having a kitchen and room for dining is often a plus. And I love a hot tub with a view!

But I’ve seen a couple of news articles about South Carolina cities questioning whether these types of short-term rentals are appropriate in residential subdivisions, and I understand the concern.

WLTX posted an article on March 16 entitled, “Renters frustrated after South Carolina city pauses short-term rentals for 6 months.” The article reports that Rock Hill is halting new and renewal permits for short-term rentals for at least the next six months.

The article quotes a man who said he and his wife operate nine Airbnb locations and have been put out of business by the resolution. The article quotes the resolution: “the homes are mainly in their older neighborhoods and these transient tenants have a negative effect on the peace and perceived safety of those neighborhoods.”

An article posted on March 17 by South Carolina Public Radio entitled “Upstate cities ponder the fate of short-term rentals” discusses the Rock Hill moratorium as well as similar discussions by city officials in Spartanburg.

The city attorney in Spartanburg is quoted as saying that city’s “permissive” zoning ordinance does not address short-term rentals and that any use that is not specifically allowed is prohibited. He admitted, however, that there are “plenty” of short-term rentals—about 120 on Airbnb alone.

One councilman in Spartanburg was quoted as arguing in favor of creating rules to keep “bad actors” from causing trouble in neighborhoods.

Rules vary greatly in the cabins and houses we’ve rented, but a common theme seems to be that parties are not allowed. I’ve also seen limits on the number of cars that can be accommodated and, of course, the number of people permitted. Pets may or may not be allowed.

What do you think? Would you be comfortable with short-term rentals in your neighborhood? Could rules about groups, parties and parking make a difference?

We may see other cities in The Palmetto State considering whether to limit short-term rentals through zoning or permitting. It’s an interesting question!

SC courts will overturn tax sales on the flimsiest of technicalities

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But apparently not when the claimant has no interest in the property

South Carolina courts don’t respect tax sales!

For that reason, tax sales have always been problematic for title examiners and real estate closing attorneys. Any concern about service of process or naming proper parties can result in the return the property to the owner of record. Historically, we would simply not close in the face of a tax sale in the chain of title.

In recent years, title insurance companies and real estate lawyers have attempted to take a more liberal approach. A rule of thumb might be that a tax sale that is at least ten years old where one person or entity has held title for a ten-year period since the tax sale may not result in an aborted closing. The title may not be marketable, but it may be insurable.

A recent Court of Appeals case* made me laugh. (Remember I am an easily amused title nerd.) The plaintiff, Scott, was “renting to own” the property in question under a 1998 oral agreement with her uncle, McAlister. Scott took possession of the property after making an initial down payment of $4,000 and agreeing to pay the remaining $31,000 purchase price in monthly installments of $300. That’s her story, at least. McAlister testified that Scott agreed to obtain a loan to make a second payment of $31,000.

After Scott failed to make the $31,000 payment, McAlister told Scott that her monthly payments would be considered rent only, and the parties agreed to reduce the monthly payment to $200. In 2007, McAlister began eviction proceedings, but the circuit court vacated the order of ejectment when Scott asserted that she occupied the property under a land purchase agreement. McAlister moved and changed the mailing address for tax purposes. The taxes for 2011 were never paid, and the property was sold in a tax sale in 2012.

Scott claimed she was unaware of the mailing address change, the delinquent taxes, the tax sale or the opportunity to redeem the property until the purchaser’s surveyor showed up! In 2015, Scott filed a complaint alleging that tax sale technicalities were not followed because notices were never posted on the property. The tax collector claimed her office posted the property notice on the property in August of 2012.

The circuit court granted summary judgment after it determined Scott lacked standing and that the tax authorities owed her no duties because she was not the record taxpayer, property owner or grantee. The Court of Appeals cited cases for the proposition that a tax execution is issued against the defaulting taxpayer, not against the property. The summary judgment decision was upheld on the theory that while due process is owed to a property owner, it is not owed to a person who whose only interest is based on an oral agreement.

I love it when our appeals courts answer real estate questions correctly. Overturning this tax sale would have resulted in serious consequences for title examiners and closing attorneys!

*Scott v. McAlister, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5897 (March 9, 2022)

Ethics Advisory Opinion advises lawyers: stay away from Expertise.com

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Ethics Advisory Opinion 22-02 fielded two marketing questions from a lawyer concerning a website, Expertise.com. This website finds and reviews service professionals and states that it researches businesses by using customer referrals, public records, accreditations and licenses and mystery shoppers.

Some law firms are listed on the site without the knowledge of the lawyers through the site’s unilateral research and screening. The site states that it lists businesses alphabetically, but it allows law firms to submit to be reviewed and included at no cost. The site indicates this process takes approximately one year to complete.  A law firm can also purchase a “featured placement” to take advantage of being seen first on the website page and to include links to the law firm’s social media.

The lawyer’s questions were:

  1. If an attorney or law firm pays for a featured placement on Expertise.com, does that attorney violate Rule 7.4(b) by holding the law firm and its attorneys out as experts by virtue of the website’s name?

2. Does paying for a featured placement on Expertise.com violate Rule 7.2(c)?

The Ethics Advisory Committee responded definitely: “Lawyer may not participate in any way in marketing via Expertise.com.” Actively participating in an online business listing at a website whose stock language violates the advertising rules is itself a violation of the advertising rules, according to the Committee.

The Committee referred to an earlier EAO: 09-10 which opined that a lawyer who adopts, endorses, or claims an online directory listing takes responsibility under the Rules for all content of the listing and general content of the directory itself, regardless of who created the material. While the prior opinion focused on comparative language contained in client testimonials and endorsements submitted to the website, the reasoning applies to content created by the host that violates some other rule, like 7.4(b), according to the current EAO.

Regardless of the creator of the offending content and regardless of which rule it violates, the Committee’s view is that a lawyer may not adopt, endorse, claim, or contribute to any online listing that contains language or other material that would violate the Rules if created and disseminated directly by the lawyer.

Paying for a featured placement within a business directory website is not itself a violation of Rule 7.2(c) if the payment obligation or amount is not tied to the referral of business as a quid pro quo, according to the EAO. In the Committee’s view, if a featured placement is the only benefit received in exchange, the payment would be a “reasonable cost of advertisement” under the 7.2(c)(1) exception.

However, the Committee believes a lawyer may not pay Expertise.com for a featured placement because that step would be prohibited by Rule 7.4(b).

Be careful out there, lawyers!

First Ethics Advisory Opinion of 2022 discusses “Land Title Dispute” email

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Is a unilateral non-client communication entitled to confidentiality?

We have our first Ethics Advisory Opinion of 2022 and it touches on a real estate matter.  In EAO 22-01, a lawyer posed a question to the Ethics Advisory Committee about an unsolicited email from an individual with whom the lawyer had no prior relationship.

The subject line of the email read “Land Title Dispute”. The email requested the lawyer’s “legal insight on a real estate situation” and included a description of the underlying facts with an inquiry of the lawyer’s opinion about whether the sender had a “legitimate claim.”

The lawyer immediately recognized that the facts recited in the message related to a matter in which the lawyer and the lawyer’s client had adverse interests to those of the sender. The lawyer replied to the email informing the sender of the adverse interests and stating that the lawyer could not represent the sender. The email further stated, “Please let me know if and when you are represented by other counsel and I will (be) happy to communicate with them regarding this matter.” The lawyer then took the opportunity to inform the sender that the lawyer believed the sender’s “proposal to profit off of this mistake is both theft and fraud.”

The lawyer asks the Committee whether the lawyer has an ethical obligation to maintain confidentiality of the information in the email since it was provided in the course of seeking legal advice.

The Committee first stated that the sender was neither a current nor a former client of the lawyer. The answer to the question depended on whether the sender is a “prospective client” under Rule 1.18. This rule reads: “A person with whom a lawyer discusses the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client only when there is a reasonable expectation that the lawyer is likely to form the relationship.” Comment 2 reads: “Not all persons who communicate information to a lawyer are entitled to protection under this Rule. A person who communicates information unilaterally to a lawyer without any reasonable expectation that the lawyer is willing to discuss the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship, therefore, is not a “prospective client” …

The Committee concluded that the lawyer had no ethical obligation to maintain confidentiality of the information in the email.

This is excellent news! We’ve all heard stories of an individual about to seek a divorce who holds meetings with all the divorce lawyers in town to limit the spouse’s choice of counsel. Thankfully, that tactic should not extend to an unsolicited email.

Charleston ROD litigation reaches temporary resolution

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This blog has previously discussed (here and here) the excellent lawsuit brought by The Finkel Law Firm against the Charleston County Register of Deeds seeking a writ of mandamus requiring the ROD (1) to immediately file all documents delivered to the ROD within one month of delivery; (2) to mark the documents as having been recorded on the date of delivery; and (3) to record all future documents in the order of the time delivery regardless of whether they were delivered in person or by the U.S. mail or parcel post.

The Court appointed Howard Yates, one of the most experienced real estate lawyers of the Charleston Bar, as Court Monitor. Mr. Yates issued a report dated January 31, 2022, the parties signed a Consent Order on February 10, and the Court issued a separate Order, also dated February 10. Please read all three documents here.

Mr. Yates has made numerous recommendations involving, among other matters, increasing office hours, increasing work hours for staff, and hiring employees from other ROD offices to reduce the backlog by working weekends.

The Court will maintain jurisdiction and will require frequent reports on progress. We can all applaud the efforts of The Finkel Law Firm and Howard Yates in bringing this matter to satisfactory conclusion, at least temporarily.

Here’s a great idea!

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The official who records our deeds should not be selected via popularity contest!

I’m all about the democratic process. But when it comes to the Register of Deeds, I believe that person should be appointed locally based on a very specific skill set. Popularity and politics should have nothing to do with choosing the appropriate person to handle the very meticulous administrative process that deals with recording public documents.

Apparently, the Executive Committee of the Charleston County Bar Association wants to take action to make sure the ROD for Charleston County is qualified. Take a look at this letter that body wrote to County Council on January 19.

If you follow this blog, you know that the Finkel Firm has brought suit against the Charleston County ROD asking for a writ of mandamus based on the horrific lag involved with recording documents in that county. This letter provides additional evidence that something is terribly wrong in the Charleston County ROD office, and action needs to be taken sooner rather than later.

As this letter points out, South Carolina is a race notice state. If our deeds, mortgages and other documents are not recorded in a timely manner and in the proper order, then the proper priorities among parties is thrown to the wind. The rights of parties relating to real property are based on when the documents establishing those rights are properly recorded.

The letter lists eighteen counties where the RODs are currently appointed. The letter also states that no constitutional provision or statutory edict requires an election in this case.

What do you think? Should the Register of Deeds be appointed by County Council?

Court of Appeals answers novel JTROS question

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In the first Advance Sheet of 2022, our Court of Appeals answered a novel question concerning the severance of a joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The case* involved the estate of a father who owned property in Garden City with his son, one of his five children. Father and son had purchased the property together, each owning a fifty percent interest.  

The facts are simple. The property owners entered into a contract to sell the property in November of 2013, prior to the father’s death on December 20, 2013. The transaction closed on December 27, just seven days after the father’s death. The son, who was also the personal representative, treated the sale as if he was the sole owner and claimed the proceeds of the sale individually. His siblings argued that the contract severed the joint tenancy, entitling the estate to half of the proceeds.

The Probate Court and Circuit Court agreed with the siblings, relying on South Carolina Federal Savings Bank v. San-A-Bel Corporation**, which held that a purchaser under a contract has an equitable lien on the property. The Probate Court reasoned that the sales contract entered into prior to the Decedent’s death encumbered the property, entitling the purchaser possession of the property upon payment of the purchase price and entitling the estate to one-half of the proceeds. The Circuit Court found that the Probate Court had correctly interpreted the law.

Dirt lawyers understand the San-A-Bel case sets up a trap for the unwary lawyer who fails to deal with the equitable lien that case established, but we have never understood that case to affect JTROS severance. The Court of Appeals agrees with us. Since neither San-A-Bel nor the JTROS statutes address the question at hand, the Court decided to look at rulings from other states to address the novel issue of whether a contract of sale severs a joint tenancy.

The Court cited cases from the states of Washington and Florida (citations omitted) and decided to follow the Florida court which held that severance does not automatically occur upon the execution of a contract executed by all joint tenants unless there is an indication in the contract or from the circumstances that the parties intended to sever and terminate the joint tenancy.

The Court found that the contract at issue was silent on the severance issue and no extraneous circumstances indicated severance was intended by the parties, so the joint tenancy was not severed by the contract, and the son was entitled to the sales proceeds.  

Dirt lawyers tend to hold our collective breath when our Courts address a novel real estate issue. But I believe that, this time, we can agree that they got it right. Let me know if you disagree with me!

*In the Matter of the Estate of Moore, South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5887, January 5, 2022.

**307 S.C. 76, 413 S.E.2d 852 (Ct. App. 1992).