Friday, February 12, 2021

What’s in a Name?

 Richard P. Howe Jr.

Lately there has been a surge in calls to the registry of deeds from homeowners who have discovered errors in their deeds. From a lawyer’s perspective, the problems identified might seem
inconsequential. After all, a slight misspelling of a grantee’s name or an incorrect street number in the property address have no effect on title, but the distressed homeowner would disagree.   

When I hear from ANNE whose deed identifies her as ANN, my standard reply that a typo like this (1) does not affect her ownership and (2) is typically addressed in a subsequent document with an “also known as” entry is usually satisfactory. But in a remarkable coincidence, I recently received unrelated calls from ERIN whose deed identified her as ERIC and ANGELO whose deed identified him as ANGELA. Neither of them were satisfied with “ERIN also known as ERIC” or “ANGELO also known as ANGELA” as the solution to their misspelled names.

In both of these cases, the offending deeds were immediately followed by mortgages and homesteads prepared by law firms that represented these homeowners at their closings. These subsequent documents spelled the names correctly so the failure to catch the deed misspellings was due to inattention rather than misinformation. Presumably, both Erin and Angelo will prevail upon the attorneys who represented them to record affidavits that correct the names, but that just prolongs the anxiety of the homeowners, costs the lawyers additional time and filing fees, and leaves deeds with misspelled names in the registry records. 

An even greater source of homeowner distress comes from incorrect property addresses on deeds. M.G.L. c. 183, s.6B requires all deeds presented for recording to “set forth in the margin the street address of the property which is affected” by the deed. The purpose of this law is to assist city and town assessors in updating their records based on newly recorded deeds. Perhaps because it’s the property description contained in the body of the deed that controls what land is conveyed, the “address in the margin” is often an afterthought in the preparation of documents. In too many instances, the person recording the deed hastily scribbles an address in the margin and is done with it. Frustratingly often, the address so written is not the street address of the property being conveyed. Sometimes it is the mailing address of the grantee (required by M.G.L. c.183, s.6) even though that and the property address may not be the same. 

Other times the address written in the margin is something close to the actual property address. Here is a typical scenario: When the property at 33 WEST STREET was recently sold, the person presenting the deed for recording mistakenly wrote 3 WEST STREET in the margin for the property address. Soon thereafter, the registry received a call from the new homeowner who could not find his deed online. (Like most homeowners, he searched by property address). We quickly found his deed and explained that even though our index had the wrong address and the deed had the wrong address, he still owned the correct property. This made no sense to the homeowner who grew increasingly frustrated. 

Not long after that a second call came in, this from the owner of 3 West Street. After seeing a TV ad urging  him to purchase ‘title lock” coverage to keep someone from “stealing his deed” he visited the registry website and discovered to his dismay that his property at 3 West Street had just been sold by someone he never heard of to someone else he never heard of. This homeowner was equally unaccepting of my assurances that he still owned his house notwithstanding the deed that suggested otherwise. 

When I first became an attorney, a wise practitioner told me “there are two kinds of lawyers: those who have made mistakes and those who are going to make mistakes.” We are all human and errors are inevitable. Still, the repeated failure of lawyers to get the grantee name and the property address right on deeds that are being recorded is inexcusable and causes homeowners needless distress. If you have read to this point, you are likely someone who already double checks the grantee name and the property address on a deed you are accepting on behalf of a buyer/client, however, many others do not take that simple step, leaving in their wake a growing cohort of anxious, angry, and frustrated homeowners.

Dick Howe’s column, “From the Recording Desk...,” is a regular feature of REBA News.  Dick has served as register of deeds in the Middlesex North Registry since 1995.  He is a frequent commentator on land records issue   and real estate news.  Dick can be contacted by email at richard.howe@sec.state.ma.us.


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