Did you hear the one about Katy Perry and the convent?

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It’s not a joke! It’s a true, real estate story!

Dirt lawyers, you know how your friendly title insurance underwriters are always harping about authority issues?  You have to carefully determine that the individuals with authority to sell or mortgage real estate are the individuals who actually sign the deeds and mortgages involved in your transactions.

katy perry nun

How do you solve a problem like Katy Perry?  (image from dailystar.co.uk)

And you know how the same friendly title insurance lawyers really harp about authority issues involving churches? Hardly a seminar goes by without the mention of a problematic closing or claim involving church property. I always say you should be particularly suspect if anyone, like a preacher, says he or she can act alone to sell or mortgage church property. Church transactions almost always involve multiple signatories.

Lawyers involved in transactions concerning church properties must ascertain whether the church is congregational, meaning it can act alone, or hierarchical, meaning a larger body at a conference, state or even national level must be involved in real estate transactions. In South Carolina, we have seen recent protracted litigation involving the Episcopal Church, making real estate transactions involving some of the loveliest and oldest church properties in our state problematic at best.

Lawyers must also determine, typically by reviewing church formation and authority documents, which individuals have authority to actually sign in behalf of the church. It is not at all unusual to find a church property titles in the names of long-deceased trustees.  It is always advisable to work with local underwriting counsel to resolve these thorny issues.

With that background, let’s dive into this Katy Perry story. The superstar decided to purchase an abandoned convent sitting on 8.5 acres in the beautiful Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles for $14.5 million in 2015. Only five nuns were left in the order, The Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This order had previously occupied the convent for around forty years. Two of the nuns searched the web to find Katy Perry’s provocative videos and music and became uncomfortable with the sale. Instead, those two nuns, without proper authority, sold the property to a local businesswoman, Dana Hollister, for only $44,000 plus the promise to pay an additional $9.9 million in three years.

Proper authority for the sale should have involved Archdiocese Jose Gomez and the Vatican. Both were required to approve any sale of property valued at over $7.5 million. The Archdiocese believed Ms. Hollister took advantage of the nuns and brought suit. After a jury trial that lasted almost a month, the church and Ms. Perry were awarded $10 million on December 4. The jury found that that Ms. Hollister acted with malice to interfere with Perry’s purchase. Two thirds of the verdict are designated for the church and one third for Ms. Perry’s entity.

Assuming lawyers were involved in the Hollister closing, you would not want to be in their shoes! Always pay careful attention to authority issues in your real estate transactions. In South Carolina, real estate lawyers are in the best position to avoid problems like the ones in this story.

The Keys to the Parsonage

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Ever handled a church closing? Oy vey! Never assume church properties make for simple closings. I grew up Baptist, where the congregation votes on real estate matters, but happily married a Methodist preacher’s kid and attend churches where real estate matters are usually handled more methodically.

churchMany transactional lawyers across the country were asked to handle closings of the Episcopal Church while those properties were in dispute, beginning in 2006 when Anglicans left the fold and sought title to church properties. The resulting litigation brought global attention and wound its way through the courts, until the Supreme Court ended the controversy in March of 2014 by declining to take up an appeal by the last remaining plaintiff. We had a dramatic case of our own in South Carolina involving All Saints Parish, Waccamaw in Georgetown County.* And I understand from talking to some lawyers in Myrtle Beach this week, that at least one of these cases is pending in lower court in South Carolina.

When handling church transactions in South Carolina, the first step is to determine the church’s form of governance. South Carolina has cases on point* which discuss two general forms of religious organization. The congregational church is an independent organization, governed solely within itself, either by a majority of members or by another local organism. The hierarchical church is organized as a body with other churches having similar faith and doctrine with a common ruling convocation or ecclesiastical head. The Baptist churches of my youth are congregational churches. The Methodist churches of my adult life are hierarchical.

Sales and mortgages of church properties must be properly authorized. A congregational church authorizes its own transactions, following its own formalities. The level of formality varies greatly. Some churches are incorporated and governed like a business corporation. The closing attorney will typically request a resolution passed in a business meeting, held pursuant to the bylaws of the corporation, authorizing the transaction and designating the appropriate church officers to sign the documents. Congregational churches may have other governing organizations. The closing attorney should pay careful attention to the governing documents and obtain written authorization.

If an independent church has no documented form of government, the closing attorney should assume the entire congregation must act. The typical title insurance old sheldoncommitment will require a resolution by the congregation passed at a special meeting convened after reasonable notice from the pulpit, authorizing the sale or mortgage. The documents will typically be signed by the trustees and the pastor pursuant to the resolution.

A transaction involving a hierarchical church will require written authorization from the ruling convocation. The United Methodist church must receive consent from the District Superintendent and the Conference.

Title insurance companies are familiar with most churches and will be able to assist in these transactions.

Be skeptical of anyone (pastor included) who says he or she can act alone in any church transaction. We have seen numerous claims where church transactions are not properly authorized.

*I’ll be glad to e-mail the citations to anyone who asks.