County register of deeds duties: Part 1

The Guide to Michigan County Government is a great source of detailed information about the structure, function, and services provided by counties in Michigan.

The county register of deeds has many responsibilities. The one many people are most familiar with is keeping the records of real property ownership. Ken VerBurg, MSU professor emeritus describes this in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government.

 “The office of register of deeds provides us with another example of how government regulates the interdependent relationships of people. The office is the repository for the official records of real property in the county. The title of the office suggests that it registers or records property deeds. That much is true. What the title leaves out is that registers record, in addition, everything that affects the quality of a deed. When a person buys a new house and borrows some of the money from a bank or other financier, the lender receives a mortgage, a conditional transfer of the property as security for the loan. The lender records the mortgage with the register of deeds as a formal notice to anyone that the mortgage is an obligation or lien against the property. 

But a lender does not lend money and record the mortgage without first determining from register of deeds records if the property has any other outstanding obligations against it. The sellers may not only have an outstanding first mortgage on the property, they may also have borrowed against their equity later and secured the loan with a second mortgage on the property. The new buyers, and the financial institution lending them the money, want to make sure that all mortgages and other obligations against the property are closed out. Thus, at the "closing" of the sale, all previous obligations are paid before signing those papers. When that is done any money left over goes to the sellers. 

Or, the house may be newly built by a contractor. What happens if the contractor has failed to pay one or more of the subcontractors or the materials supplier? As a buyer you may feel that you bought the house from the contractor with the understanding that no obligations against it were outstanding. Hence, you would not look favorably upon the kitchen cabinet subcontractor who comes along to remove the cabinets because the company has not been paid for the work and materials. Subcontractors have the right to file a lien against the property with the county register of deeds. The lien is an official notice to an interested party that the subcontractor has a high claim against the property, a claim that would ordinarily be satisfied before the "closing" of the sale. Such "mechanics liens" are another type of document that registers of deeds receive and record.

The importance of the role of the office of register of deeds is captured in the following statute: "Every conveyance of real estate within the state hereafter made, which shall not be recorded as provided in this chapter, shall be void as against a subsequent purchaser in good faith for valuable consideration . . . ." In effect, the act states that documents affecting the title of property, if not recorded, are void. It may not be quite that simple, of course, because a person with an unrecorded claim, such as a land contract, may sue to recover losses. But in one court case, for example, the judges wrote that "owners of interest in land cannot protect those interests unless they properly record them." However, another opinion said, "the fact that an instrument of conveyance is not executed with such formalities as to permit it to be recorded, does not prevent it from being good as between the parties thereto." Nonetheless, buyers and sellers rely heavily on the records in the register of deeds offices to determine property ownership.” 

Read more about the duties of the register of deeds in part two of this article. 

Watch for future Michigan State University Extension articles with more information about county government. Professor VerBurg’s book, Guide to Michigan County Government, Fourth Edition, is available in electronic form online on a CD or a USB drive with nearly 500 pages of detailed information about county government, with extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The update process is underway to be sure the information and statutory notations are current, with rollout of the Fifth Edition expected in fall 2016.

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