Should closing attorneys issue opinion letters instead of title insurance?

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Fannie Mae just announced it will accept attorney’s opinion letters in lieu of title insurance policies to reduce closing costs. Is this good news for closing attorneys and their clients? Let’s discuss that issue.

When I was an associate in a law firm in the 1980’s, I was taught by the very smart lawyers who owned the firm that title insurance should be less expensive than attorneys’ opinion letters.  In other words, title insurance would protect everyone, the lender, the buyer, the seller, and even the closing attorney at a relatively nominal cost. The price of an attorney’s opinion (my opinion) would have to be commiserate with the liability directly assumed by the law firm through that letter. The very clear lesson was that I should issue title insurance, not opinion letters. And when a title opinion was demanded, I should charge a hefty fee for it.

I’ve taught law students and others that title insurance is the best choice for several reasons. First, attorneys are only responsible for their negligence, not hidden defects and mistakes in the public records. For example, I heard about a deed recorded in Greenville County where one person forged the signatures of eight individuals, including the witnesses and notary. Forgery is rarely evident on the face of the forged document. An attorney’s opinion of title would not cover that defect. Title insurance would. An attorney’s opinion would not cover a deed, mortgage, or set of restrictive covenants missed in a title examination because of mistaken indexing by a county employee. Title insurance would.

Second, attorneys die, move, are underinsured, allow their malpractice to expire and otherwise become unavailable when a title problem arises. Finally, statutes of limitations may come into play. Title insurance does not expire as long as the lender or owner has an interest in the property, including an interest arising from deed warranties. Title insurance shifts the risk of title defects from the property owner and lender, and, in a manner of speaking, from the closing attorney to a financially sound insurer.

Fannie Mae’s announcement said that acceptable opinion letters must come from properly licensed attorneys with malpractice insurance in an amount “commonly prevailing in the jurisdiction.” The letters must provide gap coverage. Every South Carolina title opinion I’ve seen takes a clear exception to matters arising after the date of the opinion. Fannie Mae will also require the letters to “state the title condition of the property is acceptable.” I’m not sure what that statement means, but I don’t believe I would give that unqualified opinion.

This news from Fannie May could be what politicians are calling a “nothing burger”. Freddie Mac issued a similar announcement two years ago, but that announcement has not had a major impact on the way lawyers and title insurers do business.

Let’s wait and see what happens. But, in the meantime, I don’t advise my friends who close real estate transactions to start issuing title opinions instead of title insurance.