Editor's Note: See RPC 191 for additional guidance on disbursing against provisional credit.
Disbursements Incident to Real Property Closings
Opinion discusses disbursement against uncollected funds, accounting for earnest money paid outside closing and representation of the seller.
Must the closing attorney collect earnest money held in the trust accounts of real estate agents or other attorneys in the form of certified funds?
No. While it is certainly the better practice for the closing attorney to issue trust account checks only against collected funds, CPR 358 recognized that under certain circumstances such checks may be drawn against funds which though uncollected have been provisionally credited to the attorney's trust account by the financial institution in which the trust account is maintained. A closing attorney should disburse against provisionally credited funds only when he or she reasonably believes that the underlying deposited instrument is virtually certain to be honored when presented for collection. In addition, an attorney should take care not to disburse against uncollected funds in situations where the attorney's assets or credit would be insufficient to fund the trust account checks in the event that a provisionally credited item is dishonored.
Must the closing attorney request that all earnest money be entrusted to him or her prior to closing?
Again it would appear that the better practice, which would involve the closing attorney's receipt and disbursement of all funds involved in the transaction, is not absolutely compelled by the Rules of Professional Conduct. An attorney does have an absolute obligation under Rule 10.2(E) to follow his client's instructions relative to the money which is entrusted to him or her. If, as was the case in RPC 44, the lender conditions the disbursement of loan proceeds upon some clearly specified event, such as the deposit in the attorney's trust account of all earnest money, the attorney would be obliged to honor that instruction and to insist upon the entrustment prior to proceeding further with the closing. If, however, the closing attorney receives no such instruction, it is conceivable that a closing could be accomplished in which some funds pertaining to the transaction are never received or disbursed by the closing attorney. In such situations the attorney should certainly take care to advise the client that he or she cannot guarantee the appropriate handling of all the money and in particular should identify for the client the risk that the party holding the earnest money might disburse prior to the attorney's updating the title and recording the deed and deed of trust.
And in relation to the above, if the closing attorney does not require that all earnest money come in at closing, is he or she making potentially false certifications on the HUD Settlement Statement if it shows the earnest money as a credit against the payment of commissions or sales proceeds?
An attorney must, of course, be scrupulous in documenting his or her handling of trust funds (Rule 10.2(d)). If an attorney does not handle all funds incident to a real estate transaction which he or she is closing, it would certainly be prudent to carefully qualify any statements appearing on the settlement statement relative to the attorney's responsibility for the discharge of certain obligations and the quality of the attorney's knowledge relative to matters set forth only upon information and belief. As a practical matter, the attorney should obtain receipts from any persons or entities to whom payments have been made outside of closing if such are to be reflected upon the closing statement.
Can the closing attorney retained by the buyer charge the seller a fee for doing the closing and handling certain matters for the seller that are not included in deed preparation? For example, after agreeing to handle a closing for Buyer A, the closing attorney pays off the seller's loan and must spend several hours retrieving the "paid and satisfied" note and deed of trust from seller's former bank in order to clear the title and have title insurance issued on behalf of Buyer A. Can the closing attorney charge a "closing fee?" If the answer to this question is yes, what kind of notification to or agreement with seller (and buyer) would be required?
In the typical residential transaction, it would not be inappropriate for the closing attorney who has been employed by the buyer to negotiate with the seller for the payment of a fee by the seller for legal services rendered on behalf of the seller incident to the closing. Any such contracts for legal services should be executed only where the provisions of Rule 5.1(a) can be satisfied relative to potential conflicts of interest and must be negotiated well in advance of closing.
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