Contingency Clauses in Real Estate Contracts

Contingency Clauses in Real Estate Contracts

If you have ever bought or sold real estate, you may be familiar with the contingency clauses contained in these agreements. These clauses offer the option to back out of a sale if certain events occur. The meaning and consequences of these contingencies can be confusing for first-time buyers or sellers. Even those with experience in the field sometimes struggle to grasp the implications of contingency clauses.

To understand real estate contingencies, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the process in which real estate transactions are completed. When a potential buyer wishes to purchase a residential property, they will present the seller with a signed “Offer to Purchase.” In Wisconsin, the WB-11 form is the standardized contract used for residential real estate sales and serves as a base from which options are chosen. This Offer will contain all of the terms of the transaction and becomes a binding legal contract when signed by the seller. The Offer does not actually transfer the property but rather begins the process, which will culminate in a closing.  At the closing, the documents are signed and the legal title to the property is transferred. Between acceptance of the Offer and the closing, the parties can agree to change the terms using an amendment, but unless both sides agree on a change, the terms in the original signed Offer will control.

The Offer lays out a series of responsibilities and deadlines for each party. These responsibilities generally consist of providing documents, making inspections and coordinating mortgage financing and title insurance. If a party does not timely complete their duties under the Offer, they are in breach of the contract. Depending on the situation, this may allow the other party to retain earnest money, which is the deposit to the seller that represents the buyer’s good faith to purchase, sue for monetary damages, or sue for “specific performance,” meaning they will request a judge to order the breaching party to fulfill their obligations. Often, the legal costs of pursuing these remedies deter the non-breaching party from pursuing them, but the potential for such legal action makes it inadvisable to assume that if something goes wrong, or if you change your mind, you can just walk away from an accepted Offer.

Because key information is sometimes not known when an Offer is accepted, most contracts contain contingencies which state that if specific events occur, then a party has the option to walk away without being in breach. If a contingency is triggered, the party backing out of the deal is not breaking the contract because the contract itself states they would not have to go forward if that event occurred.

Although some types of contingencies benefit the Seller, generally, Sellers prefer Offers with fewer contingencies because contingencies create more opportunities for the deal to fall through, leaving them with the unsold property. Buyers typically want more contingencies as it gives them flexibility if, after the Offer is accepted, something happens that makes them no longer interested in purchasing the property. What contingencies are included can be an important part of negotiations prior to the acceptance of an Offer.

The WB-11 form contains many options for contingencies. Most are preceded by a box which is checked if that contingency is to apply. If the box is not checked, that contingency is not part of the Offer. Outside of the contingencies included as options in the WB-11, additional terms may be added which make the Offer contingent upon other circumstances. With proper drafting, an Offer can be made contingent upon almost anything.

There are too many possible contingencies to describe them all here, but some of the more common contingencies are described below:

Financing Contingency. This contingency is common when the Buyer requires a mortgage to be able to purchase the property. If the Buyer is unable to obtain a mortgage for a set amount and at a set interest rate, and the Seller is not willing to offer them financing on the same terms, then the Buyer can walk away from the deal without being in breach.

Closing of Buyer’s Other Property Contingency: This contingency allows a Buyer who is in the process of selling another property, usually their existing home, to back-out of a deal if the sale of their old property does not close by a certain date. This can be very important to a Buyer; without it they may end up being forced to either breach the contract or own two homes.  Be sure to carefully think through the dates and deadlines between the two transactions when using this contingency. Even if you already have a binding Offer on your old home, consider this contingency in case the deal falls through.

Inspection Contingency: This contingency allows the Buyer to have an inspector examine the property. If they discover a “defect,” as defined by the WB-11, the Buyer may be able to back out of the deal. The seller is typically given the right to “cure” the defect to prevent the sale from falling through. For example, if this contingency is included and an inspector identifies issues with the electrical wiring, the Buyer would have the right to walk away unless the Seller is willing to pay for the issue to be corrected.

Appraisal Contingency:  Under this contingency, the Buyer may hire an appraiser to determine the value of the property. If the appraisal is less than the purchase price, the buyer can back out of the Offer. Appraisals are expensive and take time, so consider whether it is worth the expense and whether there is enough time between acceptance and closing to receive the appraiser’s report.

If you have questions about what contingencies are appropriate for your real estate transaction, how contingencies in an existing sale may interact, or how to draft custom contingency clauses, you should consult with a real estate attorney.

 

Understanding Your Auto and Home Insurance Policies Through Declarations Pages

Understanding Your Auto and Home Insurance Policies Through Declarations Pages

I have frequently talked about the importance of having adequate insurance coverage, particularly automobile and homeowner’s insurance. In the past, I have presented this topic at our firm sponsored seminars, written on the subject in my article Insurance Plays Critical Role and I have even created a video titled Importance of Having Adequate Auto Insurance.

However, determining whether you are adequately insured first requires a basic understanding of what is contained in your insurance policies and where you can locate critical information about your coverages.  While your complete insurance policy contains many pages of conditions, exclusions and endorsements, many of which are written such that they are difficult to understand, the first place you should look in your policy is the declarations pages.  The declarations pages consist of the first few pages of your policy which identify the specific automobile and homeowner’s coverages and the amounts of coverage.  Not all policies are the same for each individual, as you need to specifically pay premiums for each of the different components of coverage.  The primary categories of coverage that you typically will find in your insurance policy include the following:

Automobile Insurance Coverages

  • Bodily Injury Liability – Identifies how much coverage you have if you are responsible for causing injuries to someone else in an automobile collision.
  • Property Damage Liability – Identifies how much coverage you have if you are responsible for causing property damage to someone else in an automobile collision.
  • Medical Payment Coverage – Identifies the amount of coverage you have for injuries to you or your passengers in your vehicle sustained in an accident, regardless of who is at fault. This amount is usually $10,000.00 or less.
  • Comprehensive Insurance – Identifies coverage that helps pay to replace or repair your vehicle if it is stolen or damaged in an incident that does not involve a collision. This would include damage from fire, vandalism, or trees or hail falling on the vehicle.
  • Collision Coverage – Identifies the coverage to help pay to repair or replace your car if it is damaged in an accident with another vehicle or object.
  • Uninsured Motorist Coverage – Identifies how much coverage you have for bodily injuries you sustain in an accident as a result of the negligence of a driver who has no insurance.
  • Underinsured Motorist Coverage – Identifies how much coverage you have for injuries you sustain if you are struck by a negligent driver who has some insurance but inadequate amounts of insurance.

Homeowner’s Insurance Coverages

  • Dwelling Coverage – Identifies the amount of coverage for your actual home in the event you sustain damages due to a fire or weather event.
  • Personal Injury Liability – Identifies the amount of coverage you have if someone is injured on your property due to your negligence.
  • Personal Property Coverage – Identifies the amount of coverage you have for the actual contents of personal belongings in your home, such as furniture, appliances, etc. Your declarations page will also tell you whether or not you have replacement cost or actual cash value  Replacement cost coverage is better because then you can recover the amount it actually costs to replace the items that are damaged or lost.  Actual cash value only provides you with that amount of damages you sustained based upon the depreciated value of those items you lost.  For example, if you paid $1,000.00 for a couch that is now 20 years old, the actual cash value amount may be extremely low, such as $50.00.  However, if you had replacement cost coverage, you would be able to replace that $1,000.00 couch with a new one and you would receive the full amount for that replacement couch.  Replacement cost coverage does cost more in premium amount; however, as you can see, it is much better coverage.

Umbrella Endorsement Coverage

Umbrella endorsement coverage is extremely important and can apply to both automobile and homeowner’s coverages.  This is perhaps the most important coverage you can purchase.  For approximately $200.00 to $250.00 per year, you can add an additional $1 million or more of coverage to the following:

  • Automobile liability limits if you are at fault in an automobile collision;
  • Uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage if someone injures you in an automobile collision; and
  • Homeowner’s liability limits if you are negligent and someone is injured on your property.

In order to obtain an umbrella policy that covers all of the above, you need to specifically request this from your insurance agent.  Many companies will only sell policies that simply provide a liability umbrella policy which would add another million dollars in coverage to your liability coverage for home and auto.  However, it is extremely valuable to have the additional protection for your automobile, uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage, as well.  That is what you will need to specifically request when you speak with your insurance agent.  This would help protect you and provide additional benefits if you or others in your vehicle are injured in an automobile collision caused by someone who is either uninsured or underinsured.

If you are injured in an automobile collision or sustain significant property damage to your home or its contents, it is important for you to consult with an attorney to assist you in obtaining fair and reasonable compensation for your losses and to utilize your insurance coverage to the fullest extent.  You should review your declarations pages with your insurance agent and discuss whether or not there is a need to increase your insurance coverages.  Simply because an agent says that you have “full coverage” does not mean that you have enough insurance to cover the typical losses that our law firm sees on a daily basis.

 

“Homophobic Taunts Not on the Menu:” According to the EEOC

“Homophobic Taunts Not on the Menu:” According to the EEOC

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace because of sex.  Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees.  By contrast, the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation.  The WFEA applies to employers with one or more employees.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is the federal agency that is empowered to investigate allegations of discrimination under Title VII.  The EEOC recently sued El Tio Tex-Mex Grille, a restaurant in Gainsville, Virginia, with intentionally allowing harassment of one of its employees based on sex.

The EEOC alleged that El Tio employees, including servers and kitchen staff, routinely subjected a gay male server to unwelcome harassing and offensive behavior that included the use of homophobic epithets and taunts about his sexuality.  The same employees similarly harassed the server’s straight friend, a busser, based on their friendship.  The server and the busser reported the harassment to El Tio’s management several times, but management allegedly ignored their complaints, failed to take reasonable measures to curb the harassment, and neglected to implement any anti-harassment policies or training. The harassment continued, according to the EEOC.

As a settlement, El Tio has agreed to pay Forty Thousand Dollars ($40,000.00) and provide specific and extensive training to its employees for a three-year period following the settlement, with monitoring by the EEOC.

For Wisconsin employers, state law forbids harassment based on an employee’s gender, as well as his or her sexual orientation. Consequently, Wisconsin employers are well advised to maintain a workplace that is free from homophobic taunts or similar verbal or physical harassing activity, lest the employer become the subject of a complaint filed with the EEOC or the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division. Employers should not ignore complaints. Every employer should have an up-to-date anti-harassment policy as part of its employee handbook.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that such a policy may be a partial or complete defense to a complaint of sex harassment in certain instances.  For more information concerning compliance with state and federal workplace laws, consult with your employment attorney.

 

How Can I Help My Children Through the Stress of Parent Separation, Divorce and School?

How Can I Help My Children Through the Stress of Parent Separation, Divorce and School?

It’s that time of year again, back to school!  For many families, the new school year is full of excitement and anticipation of new opportunities.  For others, it brings sadness and anxiety as relaxed summer schedules are replaced with earlier bedtimes, routine, homework and more structure.  For children of divorced and separated families, the stress and anxiety can be even greater, but it doesn’t have to be.  Here’s how you can help your children with a smooth transition into and throughout the school year.

Parents who still live together but have decided to separate can take the following actions to help reduce the stress and anxiety children may have.

  • Discuss ahead of time what you will tell your children and tell them together that one of their parents will be moving out.
  • Reassure your children that the divorce or separation is not their fault and that both parents love them very much.
  • Share with them what they need to know: Where will each parent be living?  When and how often will they see each parent?  Discuss plans for school (especially if a change in school will occur), extra-curricular activities, and how you plan to help them maintain friendships.
  • Don’t share with them what they should not know: Don’t blame the other parent for the divorce or separation.  Don’t talk badly about the other parent.  Don’t discuss court, financial issues or points of parent conflict.

 In addition to the points above, parents who are already divorced or separated can take the following steps to help their children through this period.

  • If both parents have placement on school nights, work together to develop a school night routine that you can both agree to. This may require compromise, but the more consistent both parents can be with homework, evening activities, bedtime, expectations, discipline, etc., the easier it will be on your children.
  • Encourage positive communication between your child and the non-placement parent. Don’t make your child feel guilty for wanting to talk to the other parent.  On the other hand, if you are the non-placement parent, don’t demand that your children speak to you on your terms.  Children should never be made to feel torn between two parents.  They should be made to know that they can love both parents without hurting the feelings of the other.
  • Don’t obsess about “who’s day it is.” Ideally, both parents should be able to attend your child’s school and extra-curricular activities regardless of who has placement and the child should know it’s alright to interact with both parents.

The tips above may seem idealistic in many cases, and I recognize that these recommendations require respectful and meaningful communication and cooperation between parents.  This may not be possible if one or both parents are high conflict, controlling, angry, etc., but to the extent you can follow these tips and remind your children, again and again, that the separation is not their fault and that both parents love them very much, your children will benefit tremendously.

 

Using a Special Needs Trust to Ensure Your Settlement Does Not Affect Public Benefits

Using a Special Needs Trust to Ensure Your Settlement Does Not Affect Public Benefits

In Wisconsin, Medicaid (sometimes also called Medical Assistance) covers 1 in 9 adults and 1 in 3 children; in fact, 16% of the Wisconsin population gets its health care coverage through Medicaid.  Unlike the similar sounding Medicare, Medicaid is a means tested, needs-based health care coverage program, which means there are various income and asset limits that determine a person’s, or his/her family’s, eligibility.

By virtue of being a means tested program, Medicaid eligibility can be affected by receipt of funds, such as a personal injury settlement, if proper steps are not taken.  For example, to qualify for Medicaid, a single person can have no more than $2,000 in total countable assets.  If that Medicaid recipient receives a personal injury settlement of $25,000, he or she is going to be above the asset limit and at risk to lose Medicaid coverage.  Considering the exorbitant cost of medical procedures and medications, the loss of Medicaid coverage, or any needs-based benefits, can be devastating.

No injury victim should face the choice of being fully and fairly compensated for his or her injuries versus keeping his or her health care coverage.  Such a harsh outcome can be avoided by transferring the settlement funds to a properly drafted “special needs trust.”  Under normal rules, if a Medicaid recipient gives away or transfers assets to someone else, or to a trust, this results in disqualification from Medicaid (a penalty period).  A special needs trust is a type of trust that is specifically allowed under the Medicaid rules as an exception to the asset transfer rule.  A Medicaid recipient can transfer assets to a special needs trust without disqualification, and the recipient will no longer be over the asset limit.  Although the injury victim no longer has access to the funds, the trustee of the special needs trust can make distributions for his or her benefit, and there will be no loss of public benefits.

For example, our hypothetical accident victim, Courtney, receives a $25,000 settlement but is on Medicaid and Social Security Income (SSI), which are public benefits with asset limits.  Courtney wants to save this money for a car (a non-countable asset) or other items but is not sure what she would like to purchase.  If she is going to stay on public benefits, she only has ten days to report that she has received the money, and then will receive a notice that her benefits will be terminated.  Instead, Courtney’s attorney creates a special needs trust for Courtney, naming her mother as the trustee.  Courtney transfers the $25,000 to the trust without any disqualification for public benefits.  Later, Courtney decides she wants to buy a car with the settlement proceeds.  The car is bought and paid for by the special needs trust; the funds to buy the car come directly from the special needs trust, not Courtney.  Courtney gets her car and continues to receive Medicaid and SSI.

It is important to remember that Medicaid and SSI are just a couple examples of means tested/needs-based public benefits that could be affected by receipt of personal injury settlement funds.  This all serves to highlight the risk of going it alone following an accident or injury, as well as the need to hire a skilled attorney.  To be sure, when the insurance adjuster is pressuring you to settle your claim, the insurance company is not going to care whether the settlement will cause you to lose your public benefits.

 

What Do I Do Now That I Have Been in a Motor Vehicle Accident?

What Do I Do Now That I Have Been in a Motor Vehicle Accident?

When you head out on the road, a motor vehicle accident is the last thing you want to happen. However, if you fall victim to a motor vehicle accident on account of another driver’s negligence, you do not want to do anything to jeopardize receiving full compensation for your injuries and damages.

The first thing you want to do is address the immediate medical needs of yourself and others. If you, a friend or family member are able, get the names and contact information from potential witnesses and take photographs of the scene and vehicle damage. Responding officers will likely want statements. Following the incident, be sure to contact the responding agency and request copies of all reports, 911 calls, dash cam video, body cam video, photographs, statements and any other evidence that may have been gathered from the scene of the accident. Depending on the location, street camera surveillance may be available as well. Some of this evidence, especially body cam video, may be discarded shortly after the accident. Therefore, it is critical you request this information promptly. In reviewing the reports and your statement, if you believe there are errors or omissions, bring this to the attention of the responsible agency as soon as possible.

Contacting your insurance company promptly is important as well. Immediately review your most recent insurance declarations. If you have what is referred to as underinsured or uninsured motor vehicle coverage (UIM/UM), your insurance company may provide coverage for injuries and damages you sustained as part of the accident if the negligent party has insufficient insurance coverage or no coverage at all. Your insurance company will also need to be notified to address the property damage to your motor vehicle.

You will also most likely be contacted soon after the collision by the other driver’s insurer. His or her company will likely want to abruptly resolve matters with you for an amount that may be far less than the true value of your loss. If your accident occurred in the State of Wisconsin, you have 3 years from the date of the accident to bring a lawsuit. Therefore, there is no immediate need to settle your claim within days or weeks of the accident. What may seem like an expected ache or pain that you feel will go away in days or weeks, could be a far more serious (even permanent) soft tissue injury. Waiting to more fully assess the extent of your injuries and damages is vital to being fully compensated.

The other driver’s insurance company will also likely want you to give a statement that is recorded. This insurance company does not represent you and does not have your best interests in mind. This statement could be used against you later. You have no obligation to give a statement to the other driver’s insurer. If you do give a statement, you are entitled to a copy of the statement and we recommend securing one as soon as possible.

If you are involved in a motor vehicle collision, the attorneys at Anderson O’Brien are here to help. We have decades of experience representing those injured in motor vehicle accidents to ensure that they are protected. We are only a call away.

 

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