How do you advise clients on issues of insurable title vs. marketable title?

Standard

An age-old question for dirt lawyers: how do you explain the state of title to your client where you have discovered a title defect but you were able to obtain affirmative coverage over that defect from your favorite title insurance company?

I spent over two thirds of my legal career working for a title insurance company. A title insurance underwriter’s job involves, for the most part, fielding title questions from practicing lawyers. Questions go something like this: “Two links back in the chain of title, there is a deed from an attorney-in-fact to herself for no consideration. Is that a problem?”  What the caller really means is: “I found a title defect in the chain of title and want to know whether you will insure over it.”

The underwriter will answer “yes” or “no” and discuss whether the title defect is a real concern or merely a technical defect that will not cause future problems. Often the discussion will include suggestions of how to “fix” the problem if it can be remedied. And often the discussion will lead to how to insure the title. At the end of the discussion, the two lawyers will have determined whether the title is insurable.

The question of whether a title is marketable is an entirely different matter.  My unofficial definition of marketable title is title that is reasonably free from doubt and acceptable by a prudent purchaser or lender and their attorneys. That definition includes a great deal of reasonableness which means that the standard is open to discussion. I often picture the county’s best dirt lawyer and decide whether that person would close on the title without calling a title insurance company.

Most real estate contracts provide that the seller will deliver marketable title. When the standard is marketable title, the arbiter is the prudent purchaser or lender, their lawyers and, ultimately, the courts. Some contracts call for insurable title, a standard that is determined by title insurance company underwriters.

Let’s look at some examples. Take the case of the power of attorney question above. Case law in South Carolina and elsewhere (and common sense) all lead to the conclusion that this title is probably not marketable. Depending on the passage of time and the estate file for the principal, a title insurance underwriter may agree to insure over the defect.

What if you discover a tax deed in your chain of title? Depending on the age of the tax deed and ownership of the property since that deed, an underwriter may insure the title, but this title is most likely not marketable.

What if your title reveals a deed that recites, “we are all the heirs”, but there is no estate confirming the identity of the heirs? That title is probably not marketable but may be insurable, depending on the facts.

Assuming your underwriter can be convinced to insure these titles, how do you advise your client?

I suggest obtaining informed consent confirmed in writing is the only answer that will protect you and your client.

In a real-life example from private practice days, a doctor client purchased a large house in the Hollywood area of Columbia for his newly blended family. The current survey revealed a very tiny (inches!) violation of a side setback line and a reverter in the chain of title. Technically, the property had reverted to the developer when the house was built in the 1950’s.

Because the violation was so small, I was able to talk my friendly and brilliant underwriting counsel into insuring over it. But because the defect was so technically, if not practically, devastating, I wrote a letter to the client, advising him of the problem, telling him to refrain from adding onto the house which would have made the violation larger and more difficult, and suggesting that any sale of the house should involve a contract drafted by me to provide for insurable, not marketable, title.  I added a paragraph at the bottom to the effect that he understood the conundrum and agreed to purchase the house despite the defect. He dutifully signed the letter.

Did he listen to me? Of course not!

How do I remember this tale so well decades later?

The next time I heard from the doctor and his title was in the context of one of those phone calls a dirt lawyer never wants to receive. A lawyer friend called the day before closing of the sale of the property asking how I managed to close in the fact of the huge (yards, not inches) setback violation with a reverter clause in the restrictive covenants. The doctor had added onto the house and had subsequently signed a standard residential contract requiring marketable title. In the minutes between the phone call and retrieving the file, I lost ten years off my life. But thankfully, the file revealed my CYA letter. 

How was the situation resolved? My law firm brought a quiet title action for the client on his dime. The developer corporation was defunct with no apparent survivors. The court quieted the title, and I lived to practice law another day.

Here is my point. Never fail to explain title defects to your client even if you are smart enough to obtain affirmative coverage. And always obtain informed consent confirmed in writing.