Lawyers: be careful with client documents

Standard

You and your staff can’t “fix” them

paperwork confusion

A recent disciplinary case from the South Carolina Supreme Court involved a document problem in a child custody case, but the case reminded me of an area that can create difficulties for real estate lawyers. The case, In re Robinson*, resulted in a definite suspension of nine months for a lawyer who submitted a sworn affidavit to a family court purportedly signed by the client and notarized by the lawyer. After the attorney-client relationship was dissolved, the client informed the court that the affidavit was forged. The client indicated that she had no knowledge of the affidavit when it was filed but contents of the affidavit were true.

It’s easy to imagine the scenario. A deadline approached. An affidavit was needed. The client was unavailable. The lawyer decided “no harm no foul” and “fixed” the document problem with an affidavit that spoke the truth but that was not signed by the client.

How does this case translate to real estate? Closing attorneys and their staff members are often tempted to correct errors in executed documents by replacing pages or typing or writing directly on them, both before and after recording. Some practitioners assume that if they can locate the original document after recording, they can simply “fix” it and re-record it. This assumption is incorrect. The documents belong to the parties to the transaction. Lawyers and their staff members cannot revise and re-record documents without party participation.

Changes in documents should be accompanied, at the very least, by the initials of the signatories. Perhaps more often, new documents should be signed, witnessed, notarized and re-recorded. Substantial changes may require more formal corrective measures, such as a deed back from the grantee and a corrective deed from the grantor.

Closing attorneys and their staff members sometimes attempt to correct documents with the participation of only the seller or borrower when actual correction of the problem may require the participation of the buyer or lender. For example, a developer’s deed mistakenly refers to Lot 1, when the closing involved Lot 2. It is not sufficient to correct this problem by having the seller sign a corrective deed using the legal description for Lot 2. The buyer should reconvey Lot 1 to the seller, and the seller should then convey Lot 2 to the buyer. Similarly, if Lot 1 was mortgaged in this closing, the lender should release Lot 1, and Lot 2 should be substituted by way of a corrective mortgage or mortgage modification.

Like the lawyer in the disciplinary case, real estate lawyers and their staff members may believe the adage “no harm no foul” comes into play when a mistake is found in a document. To stay out of the Advance Sheets, resist the impulse to “fix” client documents acting alone. And train your staff to resist similar impulses.

 

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27824 (July 11, 2018)

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