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The Prospects for Electronic Recording: The New Uniform Real Property Recording Act

Articles from The Massachusetts Focus

Newsletter of Stewart Title Guaranty Company, Massachusetts Offices
Summer 2004, Volume 3, Number 3

The Prospects for Electronic Recording: The New Uniform Real Property Recording Act
by Arthur R. Gaudio, Dean, Western New England College School of Law

The article is substantially based on a presentation that appears in the Proceedings of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers, March 2004.

History and Issues

The recording of electronic documents is not a brand new concept. All one has to do is read a little from authors such as Arthur Clarke or Isaac Asimov to see what they thought and when they thought it. But that's science fiction and we have to deal with reality and legality.

It was only about five years ago that the science of electronic recording began to move toward legal reality. Until that time most documents required traditional "wet" signatures of the parties executing them in order to be proven in court, and thus to have legal effect. Of course, the problem was that when the progenitor of the signature requirement was adopted by the British Parliament in 1677 as the Statute of Frauds no one had any conception of a signature other than a "wet" signature and of a document other than a "paper" (or was it parchment) document. One might assume that if electronic signatures and documents had been around at that time their use might have been legalized also.

To resolve this matter, in 1999 the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) approved the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA). That act has been adopted by the legislatures of 44 states and is currently under consideration in two more. Subsequently in 2000 the U.S. Congress adopted and the President signed the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-Sign). What these acts do is provide that an electronic document with an electronic signature is just as enforceable as a paper document with a "wet" signature.

However, that didn't solve the question of whether electronic documents are recordable. First of all, apparently by design, neither of these laws required that the recorder accept an electronic document for recording. There are over 3,600 recording venues in the United States with a great variety of recording standards, current technological capacities, and financial abilities to acquire new technology. If a statute had precipitously announced that all recording districts had to accept electronic documents immediately, compliance would probably have been impossible and the statute would have been doomed to failure.

Some of the issues that had to be explored and resolved include: Would all recording venues have to accept electronic documents in a uniform format or would local standards require different formats? Would all venues, from the largest to the smallest, have to accept an electronic document with any type of signature that was used by the parties to the document, regardless of its degree of security? And perhaps most importantly, did all recorders actually have the technology (or have the finances to acquire it) that is necessary to carry out the electronic recording mandate?

Nevertheless, a few forward-thinking recorders began to experiment. They implemented recording systems and accepted certain types of electronic documents. For the most part these documents were electronic copies of original paper documents. To help provide security for the land records system, many of these recorders only accepted documents from "trusted parties." A large proportion of the documents accepted by these recorders were lien or mortgage releases; relatively few were originating deeds or mortgages.

At about that same time several legislatures adopted statutes that authorized recorders to accept electronic documents. However, these enactments varied considerably in what they authorized and the means of accomplishing it. Despite a developing need, there was no uniform legislation to authorize the acceptance of electronic documents or to act as a stimulus for the adoption of electronic recording legislation. 

Uniform Real Property Electronic Recording Act

In the summer of 2002 the NCCUSL Commissioners created a committee to prepare a draft of a Uniform Real Property Electronic Recording Act. The committee was appointed and has been working on the draft. It was aided by a number of observers from the real estate and banking communities as well as by other interested parties. The committee has produced a draft that will be presented at the annual meeting of the NCCUSL Commissioners in the summer of 2004. If approved by the Commissioners it will be circulated to the state legislatures for their possible adoption.

The act is relatively short and to the point. It expressly authorizes a recorder to establish an electronic recording system. However, it does not mandate that every recorder do so. As a practical matter, it is an enabling act; it enables electronic recording by removing any uncertainty that exists under prior law regarding the recordability of electronic documents with electronic signatures. It provides that any law requiring that a document be an original, be on paper or in writing in order to be recorded is satisfied by an electronic document. It also provides that any law requiring a document to have a signature in order to be recorded is satisfied by an electronic signature. Further, if any law requires that a document be notarized, acknowledged, verified or witnessed, the electronic signature of the notary or other appropriate person properly attached to the electronic document will meet that requirement. Finally, if the recorder should decide to adopt an electronic document recording system, the recorder must still continue to accept paper documents and integrate them into the same index with the electronic documents.

Since this is enabling legislation, not all recorders are required to implement electronic recording even if their state legislature should adopt the act. This is one of the matters about which there was considerable discussion. However, proposing a mandate to require all recorders to accept electronic documents at this time would probably be doomed to failure and would not be enacted by the states. There are several interrelated reasons.

The recording venues in most states vary considerably in population, number of documents recorded, finances, and current technological capability. It is likely that only larger venues with substantial technological capabilities, significant numbers of documents recorded annually, and sound financial abilities would find it possible to cover the costs of designing, implementing, and maintaining new electronic recording systems. Their costs could be amortized and paid through the recording fees that are to be collected. However, small counties with relatively few recordings, a lack of current technological development, and a weaker financial ability might find those expenses difficult to afford, even with the collection of special recording fees.

Of course, the state legislature might appropriate the initial funding needed for each recording venue in the state to implement an electronic recording system. However, given the current state of the economy, funding at that order of magnitude is questionable, although if the economy should improve significantly it might become possible. Nevertheless, each recording venue would still have to cover the costs of maintaining and operating its own system.

As noted, one of the facts inherent to the recording of any real estate document is the payment of the recording fee. It would be a self defeating process if the document could be recorded electronically, but the fee had to be paid in person or by mail. The act specifically provides that any fee that is collected by the recorder may be collected electronically. There are many possible means for making electronic payments and the act does not select among them; it merely authorizes their collection.

A similar issue arises if an office other than the recorder must also approve the document or receive a fee before document may be recorded. For example, before recording a deed it may be necessary to obtain approval from the county treasurer or make a payment of unpaid real estate taxes. It would seem counterproductive if the recording party had to bring the document physically to the treasurer to obtain the approval or pay the taxes before being able to record it electronically. To alleviate that situation, the act provides that the recorder and other governmental officials may agree on procedures to facilitate the electronic satisfaction of those approvals or payments. In other words, the recorder and treasurer in the above example could agree upon a procedure for a single electronic payment of the taxes and recording fees coupled with a simultaneous electronic approval by the treasurer.

Although the act is a uniform one, it will be adopted in 50 states with more than 3,600 recording venues. Will a banker wishing to record a mortgage in several recording venues have to be aware of special recording requirements established by each recorder and comply with them separately? First, one should recall that not all recorders must adopt an electronic recording system. In those venues where recording is conducted in the traditional paper fashion, the banker will continue to need a paper document that complies with local standards. Nevertheless, the act seeks to provide a fair amount of uniformity for documents recorded electronically. It establishes a statewide electronic recording commission. Its job will be to adopt standards that will facilitate the implementation and use of an electronic recording system. In adopting the standards the committee is charged to consider the differences that may exist among the recording venues in the state as well as the standards of national standard setting organizations. In all likelihood the national standards will be of great significance in this process since the national organizations will have produced or approved tried and available systems. Any recorder who elects to accept electronic documents must comply with these standards. 

Further Considerations

This act uniformly authorizes a recorder to accept and record electronic documents with electronic signatures. It does not attempt to change the other real property laws of the various states. However similar those laws may be in many respects, they also have many features that are quite unique. A single electronic recording act could not possibly weave itself into the general real property laws of each state in exactly the same fashion to produce the same ultimate result. In some cases there will be gaps that have to be filled legislatively and in others there may be conflicts that will have to be resolved. Each legislature will have to review its own laws to determine what collateral real property laws have to be modified and how to do it. Perhaps a couple of examples might suggest the nature of these considerations.

It is fair to assume that some electronic recording systems may not close their doors at the same time that recorders lock their doors at night or over the weekend. Indeed it may be quite fair to assume that electronic systems would accept electronic filings 24 hours per day and seven days per week. If so, let's assume that a mortgage is filed electronically at 9:00 am on a Saturday morning. The electronic system will probably collect the document in a queue to be processed and indexed on Monday morning. Let's further assume that potential purchaser searches the electronic system on the intervening Sunday morning to determine whether there are any claims against the real estate. Finding none, the purchaser decides to accept a deed from the owner on Sunday afternoon and promptly files that deed electronically. Does that purchaser have constructive notice of the previously filed mortgage and will the purchaser be bound by it? Although it was filed, it was not indexed; thus, it was not discoverable in the electronic system. When the mortgage was filed on Saturday morning, was it recorded or merely filed? Furthermore, the laws of some states already provide that a document must be indexed in order to give notice. But the laws of many other states only require that the document be recorded in order to give notice. Should the document filed on Saturday be considered to be recorded before it is processed and indexed on Monday morning? If not, what are the ramifications for electronic transactions in real estate? Those are issues that the legislature should consider.

Another issue concerns the variety of offices in each venue at which real estate documents may be found. In some states only those real estate documents recorded in the recorder's office are considered to give notice. However, in other states real estate documents may also be found in the clerk of court's office and they are also considered to give notice. Still other offices may exist in other states in which real estate documents can be found. Even if the recorder decides to accept electronic documents and establishes an electronic recording system, the clerk of court may not do so. Consequently, the documents in the clerk's office can not be discovered without a physical search. Even if the clerk also establishes an electronic system, will it be a totally different system or will it be integrated with the recorder's office so that a single electronic searching effort will determine all the interests outstanding against a particular parcel of real estate? Once again, these are issues that the legislature should consider.

Finally, consider the issue of parcel identification. In many locales real estate parcels are described using metes and bounds descriptions. They are long, prolix statements of the outside dimensions of the parcel. As such it is easy to make an error or simply to insert an added comma or space. If an electronic recording index were based on parcel descriptions, as is done in some recording venues, it would be very easy to miss a parcel description because of a description error either in the recorded document or in the search parameters. A response to this issue might be to use parcel identifier numbers (PINs). They would simplify the searching process and significantly speed it up. It would also reduce the chance for error. However, this is a significant change for many recording venues. The legislature should seriously consider the matter before adopting the electronic recording system; to change it later may be even more difficult. 

Conclusion

The use of electronic documents is already upon us and the recording of electronic real estate documents has begun. The Uniform Real Property Electronic Recording Act removes any impediments existing under state law that would prohibit or restrain the recording of electronic documents. It places the acceptability of electronic documents on the same footing as that of paper documents.