One little mistake in drafting and recording legal documents during a refinance can result in a huge problem for a lender — such as the lender having no legal ability to enforce the mortgage! (A slight problem..) GMAC Mortgage learned this the hard way last week at the Supreme Judicial Court in GMAC Mortgage v. First American Title Insurance Company (SJC-11161), where the court found in favor of First American Title Insurance Co., in a dispute over coverage under a lender’s title insurance policy.
As title defects go, this is a doozy, because it was easily preventable, and yet wrecked so much legal havoc in its aftermath. Elizabeth Moore and her husband, Thomas Moore, lived in a home in Billerica, the title to which was in Mr. Moore’s name. In 2001, for the purpose of refinancing the property, Mr. Moore executed a note and a mortgage to GMAC’s predecessor corporation (which obtained a lender’s title insurance policy from an agent of First American). Mr. Moore also signed a deed conveying the property from himself to himself and his wife as tenants by the entirety, as his plan was for both of them to hold title jointly as husband and wife. Under the “first in time” rule, in order for the mortgage to properly attach to the property, it should have been recorded before the deed went on record. However, the closing attorney mistakenly recorded the instruments in the wrong order, so the mortgage only attached to Mr. Moore’s 1/2 interest in the Property. Mr. Moore died in 2007. After his death, record title to the property vested solely in Mrs. Moore, and GMAC was left with no ability to enforce its mortgage against her or the property.
GMAC sued Mrs. Moore to enforce its mortgage rights, and she countersued for a slew of wrongful foreclosure and consumer protection claims. GMAC and Mrs. Moore wound up settling out of court, but GMAC tried to recoup all its legal fees and losses against the lender’s title insurance policy issued by First American.
Court Rejects Complete Defense Doctrine for Title Insurance
Unlike commercial general liability policies, which courts have ruled must provide coverage to all claims in a lawsuit if merely one claim is covered — the “in for one, in for all” theory — the SJC ruled that title insurance policies do not provide such wide-ranging coverage. Reaffirming the notion that a policy of title insurance is merely an indemnification policy and not a guaranty of perfect title, the justices ruled that First American’s duty was only to cover the aspects of Mrs. Moore’s claims affecting title, and not her wrongful foreclosure and consumer protection claims. This ruling will mostly affect the relationship between the large banks and lenders and title insurance companies, but provides a good reminder about what title insurance does and what it doesn’t cover.
Title Insurance Coverages Often Misunderstood
As a former outside claims counsel for a leading title insurance company, I have found that most insureds and claimants do not fully understand title insurance coverages. And why would they? It’s complicated stuff.
Most regular folks think that title insurance provides a full and complete guaranty and assurance that title to their home is pristine and clean. While title insurance gives an ordinary homebuyer “max coverage” available for title defects, it does not provide a 100% warranty that every conceivable problem affecting legal ownership of a home will be covered.
Subject to various exclusions and exceptions noted on the policy, a title insurance policy provides coverage for loss or damage sustained by reason of a covered risk as of the time of the closing. What are those covered risks? Some risks such as forgeries, improper legal descriptions, and recording errors are covered. Other risks such as certain encroachments, boundary line disputes, wetland issues, and zoning issues are not covered. Defects or liens arising after the issuance of a policy are likewise not covered, unless a new policy is issued. Also, the new enhanced policies provide for more expanded coverages than the older standard policies. It’s best to consult an experienced title insurance attorney for a complete explanation of what a title policy covers.
I’ve written several blog posts on title insurance which can be found by clicking here.
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts title insurance claims and coverages attorney who was previously outside claims counsel to a leading title insurance company. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-620-5352.