Dirt Lawyers: beware of these assessor antics

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and be aware of a tool for fighting back!

tiny detectives

The South Carolina Bar maintains a great listserv for members of the Real Estate Practices Section through which lawyers can ask questions and share information via email. I recommend that South Carolina real estate practitioners join the section and the list. Both provide opportunities for staying in touch with fellow practitioners and keeping up with news and trends.

Recently, the list contained this entry from a wonderful practitioner in Myrtle Beach whose name I’m withholding from this blog:

“Good morning Listmates,

Is every County going through the same audit of principal residence discounts for their taxpayers? Or is it just in Horry County? I have run into multiple back-charged properties and even ran into one where it was back-charged between when we did the title search and when we recorded the Deed. (And, yes, the Assessor refused to abate the new bills for the new owner.)

So what we have now is that on any given day the assessor can back charge multiple years’ worth of taxes (and you know how big the discount is, so these bills aren’t tiny!) regardless of whether or not we have searched the title, whether the property is in foreclosure, or even whether or not the property owner is dead. (Yes – my situation involved a deceased person in foreclosure – who do I go after for that tax bill payment??)

Add to this that our title abstractors who update the title work prior to recording are looking for judgments, liens, Deeds, Mortgages….but they are not looking for new tax bills, because tax bills come out in the Fall, right? Not anymore.

I imagine the buyers who get stuck with these bills could make a title insurance claim, but ultimately that will come back to the attorney because we “missed it” and then the E&O premiums go up and the client is lost to us because we look incompetent.

I guess the moral of this story is to instruct your abstractors to check for taxes before recording any Deeds. If you have a seller on the hook at least you can get the taxes paid at the closing. (Or if you have a deceased foreclosed party, at least you’ll know before the next tax year…)”

Horry County is, of course, a vacation haven. Many, many homeowners use Horry County properties as second homes and investment properties. Primary resident discounts amount to the difference in a 6% and a 4% mileage rate, so, as the astute lawyer suggested in her e-mail to fellow real estate practitioners, the differences are “not tiny”. Thus, all the coastal counties are vigilant about policing the discounts for primary residents.

(I know a guy who lives in an interior county in North Carolina and owns a second home in the Outer Banks. He votes where his beach house is located and has his mail delivered there, resulting in multiple trips to retrieve the mail. I don’t know exactly how the North Carolina statute on the primary residence discount reads, but I don’t recommend this tactic without the advice of a tax expert.)

Luckily for us in South Carolina, the Palmetto Land Title Association worked on this problem several years ago. Teri Callen of our office was Legislative Chair of PLTA at a time when the Association lobbied to “fix” the situation outlined above.

The Association, through intense lobbying efforts, was able to obtain a statutory amendment to the effect that a tax bill is final and that a “surprise” change in the 4% eligibility would only result in a personal liability so as not to affect title to the real property.

Most buyers are protected because they are bona fide purchasers for value without notice. (The lawyer’s problem, above, with the deceased property owner in foreclosure might not see the benefit of the statute.) The amendment went into effect in 2016, and counties will typically withdraw their surprise tax bills when they are provided with the statutory language.

Section 12-43-220(c)(2)(vii) of the South Carolina code now reads:

“(A) if a person signs the certification, obtains the four percent assessment ratio, and is thereafter found not eligible, or thereafter loses eligibility and fails to notify the assessor within six months, a penalty is imposed equal to one hundred percent of the tax paid, plus interest on that amount at the rate of one-half of one percent a month, but in no case less than thirty dollars nor more than the current year’s taxes. This penalty and any interest are considered ad valorem taxes due of the property for the purposes of collection and enforcement.

(B) If property had undergone an assessable transfer of interest as provided pursuant to Section 12-37-3150 and the transferee is a bona fide purchaser for value without notice, penalties assessed pursuant to subsection (vii)(A) and the additional property taxes and late payment penalties are solely the personal liability of the transferor and do not constitute a lien on and are not enforceable against the property in the hands of the transferee…”

Thanks to Teri Callen and Palmetto Land Title Association for this statutory “fix”! If you are faced with the problem outlined in the email above, provide your assessor’s office with the statute and remind them that the Code does not allow a “re-do” of tax bills that affect third party purchasers.

Also, consider joining Palmetto Land Title Association. It fights for us!

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SC’s Mortgage Satisfaction Law Was Amended in 2014

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South Carolina’s mortgage satisfaction law changed last year, mostly for the better, but with a few snags. Effective June 2, 2014, Section 29-3-330 of the South Carolina Code was amended to remove the requirement for a “lost mortgage affidavit”, a document that mostly mystified out-of-state lenders and practitioners.

While most states allow a mortgage to be satisfied by a simple document stating, in effect, that the loan is paid in full and the mortgage is satisfied, our statute required either satisfaction by writing on the face of the original mortgage, satisfaction by affidavit of a closing attorney who paid off the mortgage, or satisfaction by a document accompanied by an affidavit from the lender stating that the mortgage was lost.

In most commercial closings, the lender being paid off did not want to deface the original mortgage for fear that the new transaction might fall apart. The attorney handling the closing did not want to sign an affidavit. And nobody wanted to swear that a mortgage in hand was lost.  Closing attorneys and title companies were asked to take mortgage satisfaction documents that clearly did not comply with our statute, but clearly made more sense than our law.

After the amendment, mortgages in South Carolina can be satisfied by four methods:

  1. On the face of the original mortgage in the  presence of the ROD. This is one of the snags. Mortgagees are finding it cumbersome to actually appear before the ROD to satisfy their mortgages.
  2. Onsignature 2 the face of the original mortgage in the presence of two witnesses. This is another snag. The number of witnesses has been increased from one to two, a requirement that some are finding difficult;
  3. By a document in “substantially” the form set out in the statute (that does not require an affidavit that the mortgage is lost); or
  4. By affidavit of a South Carolina licensed attorney who can provide proof of payment and (under penalty of perjury) certifies that he or she was given written payoff information, made the payoff and is in possession of the canceled check or wire confirmation.

Another concern is the mention of the term “deed of trust” in the statute, despite the fact that South Carolina is clearly a mortgage state.

Palmetto Land Title Association is working on some technical amendments. But, generally, the fact that a lost mortgage affidavit is no longer required has made transactions across state lines easier.