In my practice, I draft a lot of deeds for clients’ houses. I am often transferring the client’s house into an irrevocable trust or gifting the house outright to the client’s children in order to transfer the house out of the client’s name and start the clock ticking on the Medicaid five-year lookback. Most of the deeds that I draft retain life rights in the house for the client, meaning that the client has the right to live in and use the house for the remainder of her life and the obligation to pay all the carrying cost (real estate taxes, insurance, utilities, etc.) on the house.
When clients come to speak to me about making this type of transfer, they often forget to bring a copy of the deed to their house. When this happens, I simply google the appropriate county clerk’s website and search for the client’s recorded deed. County clerks are responsible for recording deeds. Most county clerks maintain an online database of recorded deeds and most of these databases go back decades. For instance, in Monmouth County, the online database goes back to 1976.
Most of my clients are amazed that I can go online and find the deed to their house. Clients believe that their deed is private information. In reality, deeds are public records and anyone can go online and print the recorded deed to your house.
This sounds scary. In fact, there are services that claim that people are going to go online and steal your house without you knowing it. These services claim that they can protect you from this type of scam, or theft by deception.
In addition to this type of scam, for years, many of my clients have told me that after their deed is recorded they receive a letter from a company insinuating that the client needs a “certified” copy of their deed and that this company can obtain a certified copy of the client’s deed for a fee. Of course, the client does not need a certified copy of their deed for any purpose.
In fact, once a client’s deed is recorded, I mail the original deed to the client; however, in reality, the client could throw the original of their deed away. I have represented many clients in selling their homes, and I have never had anyone ask for the original of the client’s deed.
When someone sells their house, a title company performs a title search of the property obtaining all prior deeds dating back a specified number of years. The title company obtains these records from the clerk’s office in the same manner in which you could obtain the records by going online on the clerk’s website.
The certified copy issue and the someone-is-going-to-steal-your-house issue are both scams in my opinion. As stated, you don’t need a certified copy of your deed. The original deed that has been recorded with the county clerk is all you need, and once recorded, you don’t even need the original. The recorded deed is all that is needed and anyone can find that deed by conducting a search of the property records.
The steal-your-house issue is a bit more complicated. Theoretically, a person could go online, obtain the deed to your house, draft a new deed transferring your house to them, forge your signature, then have a notary notarize the forged signature or forge a notary signature and seal. Finally, they could then record this forged document with the county clerk. If someone did all this, then the ostensible public records would reflect that this thief owns your house.
Of course, these actions would be a theft by deception that would be punishable as a criminal offense. There’s nothing legal about any of those actions other than finding the deed on the public records.
Also, once the thief takes these actions, is he really going to reveal himself by attempting to sell your house or mortgage your house? How would he sell your house without you knowing something was awry? Prospective buyers traipsing through your house would tip you off to the fact that something is wrong. If the thief tried to get a loan from a bank, his image would be on the bank’s cameras. He would have to forge your signature for the bank. The bank’s real estate appraiser would probably want to come to your house to appraise the house.
The bottom line is, I don’t think someone could actually steal your house simply because they can find the deed to your house online. Deeds have been public for hundreds of years, and I have never heard of anyone’s house being stolen out from under them.