A company CEO calls his executive assistant into his office.

CEO: “I need you to go buy a car for me to pick up 28 days from now.”

Assistant: “OK, what model do you want? What kind of features do you want in it? How much is OK to spend?”

CEO: “I need a car! You know what a car is, don’t you? Just go buy one!”

The assistant, confused but wanting to keep their job, immediately goes to a car dealership to pick out a new Mercedes sports car, assuming that’s what the boss wants because the car their boss bought five years ago was a Mercedes sports car. The assistant chooses the features they assume the boss wants, but there was absolutely no direction from the boss… just “go buy a car” with a 28-day deadline. The assistant does as they were instructed, gives his boss the paperwork that same day, and gets back to work. Twenty-seven days later, the boss starts screaming at the assistant and waiving the paperwork in their face.

CEO: “What the hell is this? The car doesn’t have enough cargo space! It’s way too expensive! There is no way this vehicle can go off-road because it doesn’t have four-wheel drive! And there’s no way I can fit five people in this thing! How could you have screwed up this badly! I told you I needed  a car, and you give me this? I don’t care how much work you have to get done today. Drop everything, go out, and get me the correct car right now or I’ll have to cancel my trip, and it will be all your fault!”

Does this sound fair and just to you? Of course not. The CEO’s request was completely vague, there was no direction on what kind of car was needed, and it was dumped on the assistant to decide the details. When the CEO didn’t get what they really wanted, they put all of the blame on the assistant at the last minute and expected them to fix everything immediately. However, this used to happen to our office all the time when our clients were buying, selling, or refinancing a home inside their revocable living trust. Someone involved in the process, usually a mortgage broker, would tell our client that in order to close on the loan that they needed a Trust Certification Form or Attorney Opinion Letter, and “your estate planning attorney should have that.”They talked about these forms as if they were something “off the shelf” that we could just submit instead of customized and specific legal work.

A Trust Certification Form is a writing signed by the trustees that state certain things about the trust are true. An Attorney Opinion Letter is a letter from an attorney stating certain things about the trust are true. But what exactly are those certain things? That’s the problem… every mortgage company is different, and what they require to be in the form or letter varies greatly, even from loan to loan. We used to be contacted about a month before the closing, and when we asked what needed to be in the letter or form, we were just told, “you know… the standard stuff.” We would do our best to anticipate what was needed, and then send the form or letter to the mortgage broker. Then a day or two before the closing (usually weeks later), someone involved in the mortgage process would send a nasty email about how our firm “screwed up” the letter or form, and how it needs several additional items they never mentioned before added to the form, and because our firm screwed up, we need to drop everything to “correct our mistake.” The problem is if they had a list of items that were missing, that means they definitely had a list of items that were needed in the form that they refused to give us in advance. In other words, they told us to just “buy a car.”

Of course, because the mortgage broker convinced our clients that we somehow screwed up, just like the CEO was convinced the assistant with no direction on buying a car was at fault, the clients didn’t want to pay us for our services in putting together the original form or letter, let alone the extra work we had to do in order to make corrections at the last minute. We’ll no longer entertain vague requests. Our office now sends a very specific letter stating that we will not do Trust Certification Forms or Attorney Opinion Letters unless the requesting party tells us, in writing, specifically what is needed to be in those forms up front so it can be done correctly the first time well in advance. We are happy to provide the needed items to help out our clients as long as we know those very specific items the mortgage company wants to see. However, we are not going to be put into the position of having to guess and then be blamed when we couldn’t read minds.

Recently, one of our clients, a widow, had professionals involved in a real estate sale who refused to give us what we needed to accurately create a Trust Certification Form. Here is the series of events:

  • A legal assistant from a law firm involved in the closing contacted our client to contact us because they needed a Trust Certification Form in order for the widow to sell the property out of the trust to the buyers, who were getting a mortgage.
  • We responded by sending our guidelines requesting specifically what they wanted in the Trust Certification Form so that we can get it done correctly the first time. They refused to tell us what was needed in the form.
  • The client sent them a copy of the Trust Abstract her and her husband signed when they originally signed their trust many years ago, hoping that would suffice. This was rejected, but, again, the law firm didn’t specify everything that was missing from the Trust Abstract the client sent, only that one reason it was not acceptable was because the husband had died.
  • When asked for more direction, they responded to our client by stating the Trust Certification Form they needed was a “one page form summarizing the terms of the trust” and stating now that the husband had died that the widow could sign as the sole trustee. Summarize the terms of a 65+-page trust on one page? Again, there was no direction on what exactly they would need out of those 65 pages summarized onto one page, so it was impossible to get them what they really needed.
  • The day before the scheduled closing, the legal assistant again contacted us asking where the Trust Certification Form was, and how they needed to know whether or not to cancel the closing if we couldn’t provide them what they needed right away. Again, they didn’t actually state what they needed to be in the Trust Certification Form in the email.

Fortunately, most mortgage companies or their attorneys now simply require a copy of the trust in order to put together whatever forms are needed to be signed as part of the standard closing paperwork. However, among the mortgage companies and law firms that don’t provide this service, the vast majority of those particular cases when the mortgage companies put the responsibility of getting a Trust Certification Form on the homeowner, they are simply telling the client to have their estate attorney “go buy a car” without any other direction.