Whenever a homeowner association (HOA) gives me an account for collection, the first thing I do is verify the name in which the lot or unit is held. Frequently, the books of the HOA show owner as an individual or couple, often with a nickname.
Failure to keep track of the name in which property is held can defeat a claim for assessments, as shown in River Oaks Homes Association v. Lounce, a case that originated in Jackson County, Missouri.
The HOA obtained a judgment against Zeria Lounce, individually and as trustee of her living trust, for several years’ worth of delinquent assessments. Lounce appealed to the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, claiming that the trial court erred in finding her personally liable and in finding the trust liable.
The River Oaks covenants provided that assessments were secured by a lien against the lot assessed and were also a personal obligation of ”the person who was the Owner of such property at the time when the assessment fell due.” Fifteen months after purchasing her townhouse in River Oaks in 1993, Lounce conveyed it to her living trust, with herself as trustee.
Nobody paid the assessments after 2004, and the HOA sued Lounce in her individual capacity. After filing suit, the HOA discovered that Lounce had put the property in the name of her trust and added Lounce, as trustee, as a defendant in the suit. Because the covenant provided for the personal liability of the Owner only, the court of appeals reversed the judgment against Lounce, as an individual.
The court of appeals didn’t let the trust off the hook, stating that the payment obligation ran with the ownership of the property, regardless of whether the HOA was aware of the change in ownership.
Here are the lessons for associations:
- Pay attention to the county records of ownership. The county assessors’ websites (in most counties in Missouri) are a fairly reliable place to look for the names in which property is held; the recorder’s office is the best authority, though not always the most accessible online. This is important for making sure the proper parties are casting votes in elections, as well as for collections.
- Ask your collection agency or lawyer to confirm the owners’ identities when preparing liens, sending demand letters and filing collection suits.
Carelessness about ownership can result in the loss of the ability to collect, shifting the burdens to the paying members of the HOA.