Tag Archives: Real Estate

Commercial Leases: The Devil Really IS In the Details

I’ve often heard other lawyers talk about how lawyers have a sickness.  I’m not sure that I would characterize what makes attorneys different as a sickness, but I will admit that we often seem weird to non-lawyers, and that this weirdness manifests itself in mundane ways.  My most obvious manifestation involves commercial leases.  How so?  Because I actually enjoy reading through them.  In fact, I’ve admitted publicly that being handed a commercial lease to review is like “Where’s Waldo?” for me.  I get out a pencil and my notepad, and I go to work.

Being a “country lawyer”, I don’t get to review the super-complicated, hundred-page plus leases that some attorneys get to build their careers around, but it isn’t unusual for me to be handed a commercial lease which is 30 to 50 pages long, and I have drafted some of similar length for clients.  The key is understanding that it really does take that many pages to include the “boilerplate” that you should expect in every commercial lease.  The problem is that I often discover that everyone takes the boilerplate for granted, and no one bothers to read through it carefully and determine if it makes sense for the individual tenant.  Hazardous materials clauses are a staple of commercial leases, and with good reason.  Environmental cleanup costs are very expensive, many owners policies limit the  but too often, landlords fail to think through the effect of whatever language is in their boilerplate, and the clients either don’t read carefully enough to know if they have a problem.  Many clauses broadly define “hazardous materials”, and if the lease does not narrow the definition, or make exceptions for materials commonly used by certain businesses, then a landlord may put a tenant in a position where the tenant is in violation of the lease from the moment they commence operations.  Perhaps the most obvious example came when I was asked to review a lease for a nail salon.  The hazardous materials clause was broadly written, and the tenant was shocked when I informed them that since they use acetone, they would technically be violating the lease.  In that case, the landlord was just as shocked as the tenant, and was willing to include an exception for acetone, and some other products that the salon used.  This is why patience in reviewing, along with careful note taking can help a tenant avoid nasty surprises like this which may be lurking in plain sight.

I also spend a fair amount of time with commercial leases looking at issues regarding Certificates of Estoppel.  Put simply, a Certificate of Estoppel is a certification by the tenant to a third party of certain facts regarding the lease.  The facts usually involve the length of the lease, whether or not either party is in default, the amount of the rent, or whether the tenant is currently insured as is required by the lease.  It is a subject that should not be an issue, but it frequently is, because landlords, or their banks will often ask tenants to certify things which aren’t true, or do not comport with the lease, which would have the effect of rewriting the lease moving forward, and maybe eliminating any remedy for violations or duties owed by the landlord which the tenant would otherwise be entitled to demand.  Another common error with Certificates of Estoppel occurs when the lease specifically limits what the tenant may be asked to certify, but the landlord (or a creditor of the landlord) asks the tenant to certify something outside of the specific scope defined in the lease.  This frequently occurs when a bank  or other lender has taken over possession of a property, and seeks to rewrite certain lease terms.  I no longer think that these occurrences are accidental.  I’ve spent too much time talking to representatives of banks or other lenders who clearly have a copy of the lease in front of them, and yet they ask, or more often demand, that the tenant certify something outside of the scope limited by the lease, or that otherwise is different than what the lease requires.

Finally, insurance clauses, in concert with indemnity and hold harmless provisions, require specific diligence in review. Many commercial transactions involve burden shifting, and the party with more bargaining power will shift as much liability or potential liability as they can to the party with less power.  This isn’t unusual, and I expect that, but every now and again, I get a lease where someone has gone overboard, and requires the tenant to accept certain liabilities which may or may not cause them to violate provisions of their insurance policies, or even void their insurance policies, which would leave the tenant legally liable and without any recourse against their own insurers for any recovery or contribution.   This is a problem when it involves a small business that doesn’t expect to make a lot of money,because they will often have NO bargaining power to change this, and don’t want to spend any money to even properly understand what it means for them.  But when I’m dealing with larger companies, I will sometimes arrange to sit down with the client and their insurance agent to discuss the specific wording of these clauses, and let the client hear directly from their own agent why the wording of these clauses will create problems with their coverage if it is not changed, and we will make detailed counter-proposals for alternate clauses which won’t leave them bare in the face of potential liability.

These kinds of pitfalls are why if you are looking at signing a commercial lease, it makes sense to hire an lawyer with my particular brand of weirdness to spend a few hours reviewing the lease, and then going through it with you.  Yes, it requires an outlay of capital, but it doesn’t cost as much as voiding your insurance coverage or rewriting a lease to the benefit of your landlord’s creditors.

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Filed under Business Law, Contracts and Agreements, Uncategorized

Avoiding Unnecessary Liability In Probates

One of the biggest mistakes I often see in probate matters is when a Personal Representative of an estate sells real estate and conveys it by Statutory Warranty Deed.

There are four deeds used to transfer real estate in the state of Washington: The Statutory Warranty Deed, the Bargain and Sale Deed, the Quit Claim Deed, and the Transfer on Death Deed.  The first two require the Grantor, who is the person authorized to convey title to the real property, to make warranties to the person or persons receiving title.  The Statutory Warranty Deed is the gold standard, and warrants the following:

1.  The Grantor owns in fee simple (owns all the rights of ownership) and has the right to convey;
2.  The Property is free of all encumbrances (including encroachments);
3.  That the Grantee will have quiet and peaceful possession (meaning no one will have a claim against their ownership and use of the property;
4.  The Grantor will defend the title against all lawful claims;
5.  The Grantor conveys any after-acquired title.

A Bargain and Sale Deed is one in which the Grantor makes the first 3 of the above warranties.   Conversely, no warranties are made with a quit claim deed, in which a Grantor conveys any right or title they may have.  (Transfer on Death Deeds are specialized devices used to designate beneficiaries and avoid probate in certain circumstances, and therefore would not be used by a Personal Representative in the context of probating an estate.)

In many probates, a Personal Representative is acting with non-intervention powers, which means that they do not have to get the Court’s permission to sell real property that is owned by the estate.  However, in most cases, the Personal Representative also has no idea of the real property has been encroached upon my a neighbor, or if there is a cloud on title, either due to lien or and old claim which has never been removed.  Because the Personal Representative often has no knowledge of such things, I often counsel them to convey the real property by means of a type of Quit Claim Deed called a Personal Representative’s Deed.  This will spare the estate the expense of having a piece of property surveyed and having to order a title report from a title company, which is often a step taken by a Buyer, who wants title insurance on their purchase anyway.

I have encountered some Buyers who want deeds with guarantees, and some practitioners will often counsel their clients to use a Bargain and Sale Deed in the context of a probate, but in a tight real estate market in which the seller has an advantage, it is easier for a Personal Representative to avoid unnecessary and potentially costly risks, and use a Quit Claim Deed, especially since such sales rarely get the absolute top dollar that a living and breathing property owner might hold out for.

Depending upon the estate, it is usually a good idea to have an attorney review the purchase and sale agreement as well, especially if the Personal Representative does not have non-intervention powers, because then the sale will be conditioned up on Court approval, and a number of other statutory requirements and factors will also govern the sale of the property.

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Filed under Contracts and Agreements, Pieces of the puzzle, Probates and Estates, Real Estate, Transfer on Death Deeds

The Newest Estate Planning Tool for Washington Attorneys: The Transfer on Death Deed

On June 12, 2014, Washington joined a growing number of states which now allow residents to transfer title to real estate by means of a “transfer on death” deed.  This deed allows the owner of a piece of real estate to execute and record a deed which will transfer title to the named beneficiary upon the owner’s death without having to transfer title after the owner’s death as part of a probate of the owner’s estate, much in the same way an owner of a bank account or brokerage account can execute a document naming a person or persons to be a beneficiary of the account so that title passes to the designated beneficiary upon death, making it unnecessary to probate such an account.

Like any such change in the law, this presents a number of new opportunities, and new potential pitfalls for the unaware and those who are unsophisticated about estate planning.   Nevertheless, for those with truly modest estates that do not meet Washington State or Federal Estate Tax thresholds, the new law is a tool that could help such property owners avoid a probate if they so desired, and I suspect that careful and considered use of these deeds might indeed reduce the number of probates that we as practitioners currently conduct essentially only for the purpose of transferring the title to the real estate of the deceased.  These deeds could also provide an additional means to make gifts from an estate as part of an integrated estate plan, but I cannot caution an owner of real estate enough about the need to consult with an attorney before making such a transfer, because doing so would reduce the number of assets available to pay estate taxes, which could become especially problematic in large taxable estates where other resources may also be turned into non-probate assets by means of payable on death beneficiary designations.

Using these deeds without proper planning and understanding of consequences may also create unintended consequences for those who are married or who are registered domestic partners due to the operation of community property law.  However, this may permit people to make gifts while they are alive, without triggering the need to file an informational federal gift tax return.

Another issue is the fact that there are potential situations that could involve this law in which the outcome is not necessarily clear.  One commenter has already observed that there is apparently no limitation on time in which DSHS could place a lien against the deeded property for services rendered to the deceased, and in the absence of a clear limitation on the time in which to do so in the statute, it would appear that DSHS will then have up to twenty-four months from the date of death to place a lien, which would lead the careful lawyer to advise the owner wishing to use this method of transfer that the beneficiary should not consider the gift to be “free and clear” until this two year window had passed.

I am excited that we have another option available in our estate planning tool kit.  I also see the potential for people to really screw up their estates if they don’t get help in reviewing the plan beforehand.  It will also change how we do probates, as we will have to clearly understand whether or not the real estate is a non-probate asset, or an asset of the estate.

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Filed under Planning, Probates and Estates, Real Estate, Transfer on Death Deeds