Escrow agents and how they protect themselves

When you choose an escrow company (or “closing agent,” the person who does the work necessary to close the transaction), you look for several qualities: competence, service, location, etc. One factor you probably don’t consider is whether the escrow company is willing to be responsible for its own significant errors.

When escrow is opened, the closing agent sends both buyers and sellers a copy of its standard escrow instructions. These instructions supplement the purchase and sale agreement and instruct the agent as to how the transaction should be closed. There appear to be only a handful of templates used by the many different escrow companies, as it is very common to see the same set of instructions regardless of the escrow company. In the vast majority of those instructions (perhaps 85-90%), there is a little-noticed sentence, typically in the “Disputes” paragraph: “The parties jointly and severally agree to pay the closing agent’s costs, expenses and reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in any lawsuit arising out of or in connection with the transaction or these instructions, whether such lawsuit is instituted by the closing agent, the parties, or any other person.” The exact language of this sentence may vary somewhat, but the gist is the same: if anyone sues the closing agent for any reason, buyer and seller will be responsible for the closing agent’s attorney’s fees and costs.

The effect of this language is to insulate the escrow company from any liability that arises out of the closing agent’s negligence. Say, for example, the closing agent neglects to pay off an existing lien on the home. When buyer takes title, the buyer will now have to deal with this lien that was incurred by the seller. A reasonably prudent closing agent would have insured that all liens were satisfied at closing, and the agent’s failure to do so probably constitutes negligence. Under normal circumstances, the agent (and escrow company) would be liable to the buyer for the harm caused by this negligence. However, if the instructions contained the above language, the agent almost certainly will avoid liability. Why? Because if buyer were to file suit against escrow in this situation, buyer would be responsible for paying escrow’s attorney’s fees and costs in the lawsuit. As anyone who has used an attorney to defend them in litigation knows, attorney’s fees can be very, very expensive. Thus, the above language is an incredibly strong disincentive to seeking compensation from escrow, even in those instances where escrow’s negligence causes harm. I believe this is simply not fair to the buyer and seller.

In my experience, most (but not all) escrow companies are willing to modify the above language so that it does not effectively bar a suit against escrow based on escrow’s negligence. It’s certainly an issue you may want to address when deciding which escrow to use in your transaction. Needless to say, an attorney can quickly negotiate a change in these instructions on your behalf. [This post does not constitute legal advice. Consult a lawyer regarding your particular situation.]