ALTA Best Practices

 

Title Insurance and Settlement Company Best Practices
Mission Statement
  • ALTA seeks to guide its membership on best practices to protect consumers, promote quality service, provide for ongoing employee training, and meet legal and market requirements. These practices are voluntary and designed to help members illustrate to consumers and clients the industry’s professionalism and best practices to ensure a positive and compliant real estate settlement experience. These best practices are not intended to encompass all aspects of title or settlement company activity.
  • ALTA is publishing these best practices as a benchmark for the mortgage lending and real estate settlement industry. ALTA seeks comments from stakeholders as the Association seeks to continually improve these best practices. A formal committee ofALTA members will regularly review and make improvements to these best practices, seeking comment on each revision.

 

Definitions

Background Check: A background check is the process of compiling and reviewing both confidential and public employment, address, and criminal records of an individual or an organization. Background checks may be limited in geographic scope. This provision and use of these reports are subject to the limitations of federal and state law.

Credit Report: A report prepared by a financial institution or a credit reporting agency (such as Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion, or in the case of a corporation, Dun & Bradstreet) that summarizes a person’s or organization’s credit history and present financial position, including information on any liens in force against the person or organization. This provision and use of these reports are subject to the limitations of federal and state law.

Escrow: A transaction in which an impartial third party acts in a fiduciary capacity for the seller, buyer, borrower, or lender in performing the closing for a real estate transaction according to local practice and custom. The escrow holders have fiduciary responsibility for prudent processing, safeguarding and accounting for funds and documents entrusted to them.

Escrow Trust Account: An account to hold funds in trust for parties to a real estate transaction. These funds are held subject to a fiduciary capacity as established by written instructions.

Federally Insured Financial Institutions: A financial institution that has its deposits insured by an instrumentality of the federal government, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and National Credit Union Administration (NCUA).

Licenses: Title Agent or Producer License or registration, or any other business licensing requirement as required by state law, or a license to practice law, where applicable.

Settlement: In some areas called a “closing.” The process of completing a real estate transaction in accordance with written instructions during which deeds, mortgages, leases and other required instruments are executed and/or delivered, an accounting between the parties is made, the funds are disbursed and the appropriate documents are recorded.

Non-public Personal Information: Personally identifiable data such as information provided bya customer on a form or application, information about a customer’s transactions, or any other information about a customer which is otherwise unavailable to the general public. NPI includes first name or first initial and last name coupled with any of the following: Social Security Number, driver’s license number, state-issued ID number, credit card number, debit card number, or other financial account numbers.

Trial Balance: A list of all open individual escrow ledger record balances at the end of the reconciliation period.

Three-Way Reconciliation: A three-way reconciliation is a method for discovering shortages (intentional or otherwise), charges that must be reimbursed or any type of errors or omissions that must be corrected in relation to an escrow trust account. This requires the escrow trial balance, the book balance and the reconciled bank balance to be compared. If all three parts do not agree, the difference shall be investigated and corrected.

 

Best Practices

1. Best Practice: Establish and maintain current license(s) as required to conduct the business of title insurance and settlement services.

Purpose: Maintaining state mandated insurance licenses and corporate registrations (as applicable) ensures that the company remains in good standing with the state.

Procedures to meet this best practice:

  • Establish and maintain applicable business license(s).
  • Establish and maintain compliance with licensing, registration, or similar requirements with the applicable state regulatory department or agency.
  • Establish and maintain appropriate compliance with ALTA’s Policy Forms Licensing requirement.

2. Best Practice: Adopt and maintain appropriate written procedures and controls for Escrow Trust Accounts allowing for electronic verification of reconciliation

Purpose: Appropriate and effective escrow controls and staff training help title and settlement companies meet client and legal requirements for the safeguarding of client funds. These procedures ensure accuracy and minimize the exposure to loss of client funds. Settlement companies may engage outside contractors to conduct segregation of trust accounting duties.

Procedures to meet this best practice:

  • Escrow funds and operating accounts are separately maintained.
    • Escrow funds or other funds the company maintains under a fiduciary duty to another are not commingled with the company’s operating account or an employee or manager’s personal account.
  • Escrow Trust Accounts are prepared with Trial Balances.
    • On at least a monthly basis, Escrow Trust Accounts are prepared with Trial Balances (“Three-Way Reconciliation”), listing all open escrow balances.
  • Escrow Trust Accounts are reconciled.
    • On at least a daily basis, reconciliation of the receipts and disbursements of the Escrow Trust Account is performed
    • On at least a monthly basis, a Three-Way Reconciliation is performed reconciling the bank statement, check book and Trial Balances.
    • Segregation of duties is in place to ensure the reliability of the reconciliation and reconciliations are conducted by someone other than those with signing authority.
    • Results of the reconciliation are reviewed by management and are accessible electronically by the agency’s contracted underwriter(s).
  • Escrow Trust Accounts are properly identified.
    • Accounts are identified as “escrow” or “trust” accounts. Appropriate identification appears on all account-related documentation including bank statements, bank agreements, disbursement checks and deposit tickets.
  • Outstanding file balances are documented.
  • Transactions are conducted by authorized employees only.
    • Only those employees whose authority has been defined to authorize bank transactions may do so. Appropriate authorization levels are set by the company and reviewed for updates annually. Former employees are immediately deleted as listed signatories on all bank accounts.
  • Unless directed by the beneficial owner, Escrow Trust Accounts are maintained in Federally Insured Financial Institutions.
  • Utilize positive pay, Automated Clearing House blocks and international wire blocks, if available.
  • Checks are completed in the hiring process and regularly conducted for existing employees.
    • At least every three years, obtain Background Checks going back five years for all employees who have access to customer funds.
    • At least every three years, obtain Credit Reports for all employees who have access to customer funds.
  • Ongoing training is conducted for employees in proper management of escrow funds and escrow accounting.

3. Best Practice: Adopt and maintain a written privacy and information security program to protect Non-public Personal Information as required by local, state and federal law.

Purpose: Federal and state laws (including the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) require title companies to develop a written information security program that describes their procedures to protect non-public customer information. The program must be appropriate to the company’s size and complexity, the nature and scope of the company’s activities, and the sensitivity of the customer information the company handles. A company evaluates and adjusts its program in light of relevant circumstances, including changes in the firm’s business or operations, or the results of security testing and monitoring.

Procedures to meet this best practice:

  • Physical security of Non-public Personal Information.
    • Restrict access to Non-public Personal Information to authorized employees who have undergone Background Checks and Credit Reports at hiring
    • Prohibit or control the use of removable media.
    • Use only secure delivery methods when transmitting Non-public Personal Information.
  • Network security of Non-public Personal Information.
    • Maintain and secure access to company information technology oDevelop guidelines for the appropriate use of company information technology.
    • Ensure secure collection and transmission of Non-public Personal Information.
  • Ensure disposal of Non-public Personal Information.
    • Federal law requires companies that possess Non-public Personal Information for a business purpose to dispose of such information properly in a manner that protects against unauthorized access to or use of the information.
  • Establish a disaster management plan.
  • Appropriate management and training of employees to ensure compliance with company’s information security program.
  • Oversight of service providers to ensure compliance with a company’s information security program. oCompanies should take reasonable steps to select and retain service providers that are capable of appropriately safeguarding Non-public Personal Information.
  • Audit and oversight procedures to ensure compliance with company’s information security program.
    • Companies should review their privacy and information security procedures to detect the potential for improper disclosure of confidential information.
  • Notification of security breaches to customers and law enforcement.
    • Companies should post the privacy and information security program on their websites or provide program information directly to customers in another useable form. When a breach is detected, companies should have a program to inform customers and law enforcement as required by law.

4.Best Practice: Adopt standard real estate settlement procedures and policies that ensure compliance with Federal and State Consumer Financial Laws as applicable.

Purpose: Adopting appropriate policies and conducting ongoing employee training can ensure that a real estate settlement company can meet state, federal and contractual obligations governing the settlement process and provide a safe and compliant settlement

In particular, some procedures to meet this best practice:

  • Recording procedures.
    • Companies review their legal and contractual requirements to determine their obligations for recording documents and incorporate these requirements in their procedures
      • Submit or ship documents for recording to the county recorder (or equivalent) or the person or entity responsible for recording within two (2) business days of Settlement.
      • Use electronic recording where available.
      • Track shipments of documents for recording.
      • Ensure timely responses to recording rejections.
      • Addressing rejected recordings to prevent unnecessary delay.
      • Verify that recordation actually occurred and maintain a record of the recording information for the document(s).
  • Pricing procedures.
    • Companies develop procedures to ensure that customers are charged the company’s established rates for their services. These rates are determined by a mix of legal and contractual obligations.
      • Utilize rate manuals and online calculators, as appropriate, to ensure correct fees are being charged for title insurance policy premiums, state-specific fees and endorsements.
      • Ensure discounted rates are calculated and charged when appropriate, including refinance or reissue rates.
      • Ensure timely responses to recording rejections.
      • Quality check files after Settlement to ensure consumers were charged the company’s established rates.

5.Best Practice: Adopt and maintain written procedures related to title policy production, delivery, reporting and premium remittance.

Purpose: Appropriate procedures for the production, delivery and remittance of title insurance policies ensures title companies meet their legal and contractual obligations.

Procedures to meet this best practice:

  • Title policy production and delivery.
    • Title insurance policies are issued and delivered to customers in a timely manner to meet statutory, regulatory or contractual obligations.
      • Issue and deliver policies within thirty days of Settlement if terms and conditions of title insurance commitment have been satisfied.
  • Premium reporting and remittance.
    • Title insurance policies are reported and premiums are remitted to the underwriter in a timely manner to meet statutory, regulatory or contractual obligations.
      • Report policies (including a copy of the policy) to underwriter by the last day of the month following the month in which the insured transaction was settled.
      • Remit premiums to underwriter by the last day of the month following the month in which the insured transaction was settled.

6.Best Practice: Maintain appropriate professional liability insurance and fidelity coverage.

Purpose: Appropriate levels of professional liability (errors and omissions insurance) ensure that title agencies and settlement companies have the financial capacity to stand behind their professional services. In addition, state law and contractual obligations may require a company to maintain fidelity bond and surety bond policies with prescribed minimum amounts of coverage.

Procedures to meet this best practice:

  • Professional liability or errors and omissions insurance.
    • The company possesses an amount of professional liability insurance from a carrier that is acceptable to the underwriter, given the company’s size and complexity and the nature and scope of its operations in an amount not less than agreed to in the company’s underwriting agreement(s).
  • Fidelity coverage.
    • When required by state law or contractual obligations, the company possesses the required amount of fidelity bond coverage, from a carrier that is acceptable to the underwriter in an amount not less than the amount required by state law or agreed to in the company’s underwriting agreement(s).
    • If coverage is not required by state law or contractual obligations, the company possesses an appropriate amount of fidelity bond coverage given the company’s size and complexity and the nature and scope of its operations.
    • Alternatively, the company ensures that Closing Protection Letter coverage, where mandated by statute, is issued in connection with the disbursement or that a statutory indemnity fund is established to cover fidelity losses not otherwise covered by the protections afforded by the underwriter.
  • Surety coverage.
    • When required by state law or contractual obligations, the company possesses the required amount of surety bond coverage from a carrier that is acceptable to the underwriter in an amount not less than the amount required by state law or agreed to in the company’s underwriting agreement(s).
    • If coverage is not required by state law or contractual obligations, the company possesses an appropriate amount of surety coverage from a carrier that is acceptable to the underwriter.
    • Companies should also ascertain whether the underwriter for the transaction carries an agent surety bond to cover such losses.

7.Best Practice: Adopt and maintain procedures for resolving consumer complaints.

Purpose: A process for receiving and addressing consumer complaints is important to ensure that any instances of poor service or non-compliance do not go undiscovered.

Procedures to meet this best practice:

  • Consumer complaint intake, documentation and tracking.
    • Standard procedures for logging and resolving consumer complaints ensure that consumers provide the company with sufficient information to understand the nature and scope of the complaint.
      • Develop a standard consumer complaint form that identifies information that connects the complaint to a specific transaction.
      • Set a single point of contact for consumer complaints. Establish procedures for forwarding complaints to appropriate personnel.
      • Maintain a log of consumer complaints that includes whether and how the complaint was resolved.