Ethics Opinions

Print opinion

Back to ethics opinions search

RPC 78

October 20, 1989

Conditional Delivery of Trust Account Checks

 

Opinion rules that a closing attorney cannot make conditional delivery of trust account checks to real estate agent before depositing loan proceeds against which checks were to be drawn.

 

Inquiry:

 

Attorney closes loans for a number of real estate clients. After all documents are signed, but before recording, Attorney gives the real estate agent the commission check and the check for the Sellers' proceeds, with specific instructions that real estate agent is to hold both checks in trust until notified that the closing documents have been recorded and all closing proceeds have been deposited in Attorney's trust account. Attorney then records the necessary documents and deposits all closing proceeds in his trust account.

 

Attorney has been given closing instructions from the lender which require recording before disbursement. Attorney has actually signed a statement to the lender that he will follow the lender's instructions. Attorney is on the approved attorneys' list for a number of title insurance companies who have issued insured closing letters to lenders whose loans Attorney closes. The insured closing letter ensures that Attorney will comply with the lender's closing instructions. Attorney does not deposit any funds, including lender's loan proceeds, until after title update and recording. If a defect in title is discovered by Attorney in his title update after "disbursement," he will not record and will notify the real estate agent to return the checks.

 

1. May Attorney ethically tender to real estate agent, in trust, the commission and seller's proceeds checks with instructions that the realtor, as agent for attorney, hold such checks until the attorney has recorded the closing documents, deposited the closing proceeds in his trust account, and notified the realtor that he may disburse the checks which real estate agent is holding in trust?

 

2. Has Attorney violated any ethical requirements in disregarding the potential liability that would be imposed upon the title insurance company and/or his professional liability carrier if a defect is discovered after disbursement?

 

Opinion:

 

This is a variation of the inquiry addressed in RPC 44, concerning the obligation of the closing attorney to follow the instructions of his client, the lender, to record documents before disbursing loan proceeds.

 

1. No. The attorney may not ethically deliver trust account checks to the real estate agent, even if such delivery is made "in trust" or "conditionally," until the attorney has recorded the closing documents and deposited the closing proceeds in his trust account.

 

Arguably, the conditional delivery of the trust account checks would not violate the lender's instructions, because the Attorney is, in fact, recording before depositing and disbursing the lender's funds. Those funds have not been "disbursed." See RPC 44.

 

However, by delivering to the real estate agent checks drawn on the trust account when the account has either (i) no funds or (ii) trust funds belonging to others, the Attorney violates Rules 10.1 and 10.2. Under those rules, funds deposited in a trust account are funds received by the Attorney as a fiduciary, which must be held and disbursed only for the benefit of those entitled to them, in accordance with appropriate instructions. Accordingly, Attorney cannot violate or delegate his fiduciary duty by putting into the hands of an unrelated third-party a check, regular on its face, drawn on a trust account containing only the funds of others. Similarly, Attorney cannot ethically deliver checks drawn on an account with insufficient funds, in violation of the law and the implicit requirement imposed by Rule 10.2(F).

 

2. Because of the answer to question 1, it appears unnecessary to answer question 2. Reference is made to RPC 44. As a general matter, the ultimate liability created under a title insurance policy or professional liability insurance policy will be irrelevant to a determination of the ethical issues, which must be judged independently of legal liability and insurability.

 

Back to ethics opinions search

THE NORTH CAROLINA STATE BAR
217 E. Edenton Street • PO Box 25908 • Raleigh, NC 27611-5908 • 919.828.4620
Copyrightę North Carolina State Bar. All rights reserved.