Trustees Are “Owners” of Home for Lien Protection Purposes

It’s frankly a little hard to explain why trust lawyers get excited about the subject of this week’s article. After all, it seems to be about who will pay for the new doors in a home renovation in a pricey suburb of Phoenix. The bill was large — $8,276.10 — but hardly astonishing. Let’s see if we can convey some of the excitement.

Richard and Kristen Williamson owned their home in Scottsdale, Arizona, just west of McDowell Mountain Regional Park. They had also created a revocable living trust. Just as they should, they had transferred the title to their home into the trust’s name.

But what does that mean? In Arizona, at least, that usually means that the trust “settlors” (the people who create the trust, sometimes also called “trustors” or “trust creators”) sign a deed from themselves as owners to themselves as trustees. So Mr. and Mrs. Williamson had transferred their home by just such a deed — and the Maricopa County Recorder’s office indicated that ownership of the home now belonged to “Richard M. Williamson and Kristen A. Williamson as Trustees of the Williamson Family Trust.”

Then the Williamsons — again quite properly — went about living their lives. In June, 2005, they decided to construct an addition on their home. They hired a contractor, Freedom Architectural Builders, to do the work. Their contract was unremarkable; it spelled out what the contractor would do and how funds would be released, in stages, as work progressed.

Almost two years later the work had progressed to the point that it was time to put doors on the addition. Freedom Architectural Builders sub-contracted with another company, PVOrbit, Inc. (it was doing business as Fountain Hills Door & Supply), to actually provide the doors and hinges. PVOrbit did what it was supposed to do, delivering doors and hinges to the home and sending its invoice to Freedom Architectural Builders.

Before the bill for doors got paid, however, Freedom Architectural Builders got into serious financial trouble. It notified Mr. and Mrs. Williamson that it could not complete the work on their home, and it walked away from the project. The Williamsons ended up hiring a new contractor to finish the work.

The Williamsons had no separate contract with PVOrbit or Fountain Hills Door & Supply, so they ignored demands for payment for the doors. Besides, they argued that they had already paid Freedom Architectural Builders for the doors, that they had to pay over $30,000 more than the total contract price to get the work done, and that PVOrbit’s complaint was with the contractor.

PVOrbit responded by filing a lien against the Williamsons’ home. The lien — often called a “materialman’s” lien or “mechanic’s” lien — can be unilaterally filed by someone who has provided materials used on real or personal property without having been paid. There are some specific rules about how such liens may be filed, and they vary from state to state. In Arizona, there is one important (for our purposes) limitation: such a lien can not be pursued against a home actually lived in by its owner.

Mr. and Mrs. Williamson sued, asking that PVOrbit be ordered to remove the lien and pay their attorneys fees and costs. At about the same time, PVOrbit sued the Williamsons and Freedom Architectural Builders for the doors they had installed. The two lawsuits were consolidated. Freedom Architectural Builders filed bankruptcy and was dismissed as a party in the consolidated lawsuits.

PVOrbit argued that the Williamsons were not owner/occupants of their home. The home, according to the door supplier, actually belonged to the Williamson Family Trust, not Mr. and Mrs. Williamson. Besides, said PVOrbit, the Williamsons shouldn’t be allowed to get away with not paying for the $8,276.10 worth of doors and hinges — to allow that would be to unjustly enrich them. The trial judge was not impressed with either argument; he dismissed the PVOrbit lawsuit and granted the Williamons $6,000 in fees and costs against the door company.

Admittedly, trust lawyers tend to be easily excited, at least when it comes to arcane issues like this question: who actually owns property titled to a trust? The Arizona Court of Appeals has probably raised the level of excitement (and agitation) among trust lawyers by upholding the trial judge in the Williamson/PVOrbit litigation, but with a slight twist. The appellate court has decided that because the deed says “Richard M. Williamson and Kristen A. Williamson,” the Williamsons are in fact owners of their home — even though the rest of the title qualifies their ownership interest: “…as trustees of the Williamson Family Trust.” It is a technical reading of the relationship of the Williamsons as individuals to the Williamsons as trustees. Williamson v. PVOrbit, Inc., September 1, 2011.

There is actually a perfectly good basis on which the Court of Appeals could have relied. Trust law has for centuries allowed for a distinction between the “legal” ownership of property (what the Williamsons as trustees held) and the “equitable” ownership of the same property (what the Williamsons held as trust beneficiaries). The appellate court could have decided that the statute protecting owner/occupants of homes was satisfied if the ownership interest is a beneficial one. That would have solved the problem.

What difference does it make? Well, what if Mr. and Mrs. Williamson — for whatever reason — decided to let their successor trustees take over. Now ownership might be held as “Skip and Marcy Jackson as Trustees of the Williamson Family Trust.” (Note: we don’t actually know who is successor trustee of the Willaimsons’ trust, and we don’t know anyone named Skip and Marcy — we just like the sound of it.) Would that mean that Skip and Marcy would have to move in with the Williamsons to protect against materialman’s liens? That would be silly — so long as Mr. and Mrs. Williamson are beneficiaries of the trust they created, they have the equitable ownership interest and the right to be, well, owner/occupants.

One other thing about the Williamson case strikes us. It may work to the advantage of people who worry about buyers’ title insurance policies. Some have suggested that transferring your home into a living trust could arguably be a transfer that voided your title insurance coverage. If the Williamson decision is valid, that argument would be a lot easier to strike down.

All right — can you see why we got excited?

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