Title Insurance

GMAC-MortgageRejects “In For One, In for All” Theory in Title Insurance Coverage

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.

First-American-Title-Insurance-CompanyA Doozy of a Mistake

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.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard 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 info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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title-insuranceIn my opinion, title insurance is an absolute necessity in every real estate conveyance transaction. When I purchased my own house, I even purchased owner’s title insurance although I’m an experienced real estate attorney! I feel so strongly about this that I have declined to handle closings in the very rare instance where a buyer has insisted on declining owner’s title insurance.

The problem is that most home buyers don’t know what title insurance is or what it covers, and only see it for the first time on the closing settlement statement. Closing attorneys and title insurance companies need to do a better job explaining the excellent benefits and value of title insurance, so consumers don’t have the perception that it is just another closing cost.

What Is Title Insurance?

Title insurance is policy of insurance (technically an indemnification policy) protecting homeowners and lenders from actual financial loss in the event that certain covered problems develop regarding the rights to ownership of property. While Massachusetts closing attorneys search and certify each title to real estate before a closing, there are often hidden title defects that even the most careful title search will not reveal. In addition to protection from financial loss, title insurance pays the cost of defending against any covered claim.

There are two types of title insurance, lender’s and owner’s policies. Lender’s policies are required by most every public mortgage lender in the U.S., and are typically paid as part of closing costs.  Owner’s policies are optional and paid for by home buyers. I will discuss owner’s policies in this post.

Title Defects:  What Does An Owner’s Policy Of Title Insurance Cover?

The recent foreclosure paperwork mess and the Massachusetts high court ruling in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez are perfect examples of the importance of title insurance. Thousands titles in Massachusetts coming out of faulty foreclosures were rendered defective because of the Ibanez ruling. Those without owner’s title insurance were left to fix the title problems on their own at great expense. Those with title insurance, by contrast, were able to sell their property with the title insurer issuing “clean” policies over the defects.

Here are some other real world examples of how title insurance protects you. I recently represented a condominium seller who was shocked to learn a day before the closing that there were several un-discharged mortgages and liens on her unit left over from the original developer. Fortunately, she had an owner’s title insurance policy which allowed her closing to go forward as scheduled. I represented a young family who was dismayed to learn that the property they were about to buy was subject to the claim of a long-lost heir of a prior owner. The title insurance company agreed to file litigation against the “missing” heir, and clear the title. If title insurance was not available in these transactions, the deals would have been canceled altogether, or the closings would have been delayed by months if not years until the issues were resolved, if at all.

In addition to undischarged mortgages and the sudden appearance of unknown or missing heirs claiming an interest in the property, an owner’s policy of title insurance also covers a myriad of other types of title defects, including:

  • Faulty foreclosures
  • Forged deeds or impersonations
  • Incorrect legal or boundary descriptions
  • Recording errors

There is also a new extended or enhanced coverage policy available from all major title insurance companies which covers:

  • Building permit violations
  • Adverse possession or prescriptive easements
  • Building encroachments
  • Incorrect surveys
  • Pre-existing violations of subdivision, zoning laws, restrictive covenants.

For a full list of just about every conceivable situation covered by title insurance, please read my article: 50 Ways To Lose Your Home.

How Much Does Title Insurance Cost?

Title insurance is a one-time premium paid at closing and is calculated based on the purchase price of your home. The cost today is for s standard coverage policy $3.65 per $1,000 in home value. Enhanced coverage policies run about $4.00/thousand, and provide better coverages (i.e., for boundary disputes) and inflationary protection. Thus, a $500,000 home would cost a one time premium (standard) of $1,825.

Title insurance is a good deal because you pay once and it continues to provide complete coverage for as long as you or your heirs own the property. Those who decline title insurance rationalize that the risk of a title defect is minimal and not worth the premium. That is false. As a former claims counsel for a national title company, I could write a treatise on the different types of title problems I have seen derail closings and drag on for years.

The Role Of The Closing Attorney

The closing attorney ensures that the title examination is done on the property, certifies that the title is “marketable,” and issues the title insurance policy. While all U.S. public lenders require lender’s policies of title insurance, closings attorneys should always recommend owner’s policies for buyers. Attorneys do share in the title premiums generated. However, as I said before, even the most careful title search cannot reveal a hidden title defect that can wreck havoc on any subsequent sale or refinancing of the property.

To borrow from Nike’s old slogan, Title Insurance:  Just Get It.

Please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com if you have any further questions about title insurance.

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