(From the November 2013 issue of The National Notary magazine)
By Michael Lewis
The collapse of the housing market and numerous other crises have caused the government to significantly increase its scrutiny of the mortgage industry. This challenging new environment is forcing lenders, title companies, signing services and others in the mortgage origination world to take a hard look at how business is done.
Of all the people involved in originating mortgages, Notary Signing Agents received little attention. That is changing. In order to comply with federal mandates, lenders now recognize that the tens of thousands of Signing Agents who represent them at the signing table need to be better qualified.
As a result, leading lenders and title companies gathered to create the first set of recommended best-practice standards for Notaries handling loan signings. These standards are called the Certified Signing Specialist Standards and form the basis of a new designation for signing professionals: the Certified Signing Specialist. That is a Notary who has met all of the elements of the standards.
The publication of the Standards is among the most significant developments to hit the loan-signing profession in years, and it will help you meet the needs of nearly every firm in the real estate finance industry. In turn, you will be eligible for more jobs that will help you thrive in the current market.
A special committee called the Signing Professionals Workgroup (SPW) comprised of executives from major lenders and title companies, developed the Standards. The National Notary Association was asked to serve as an expert advisor. In that role, we helped the Workgroup understand the scope of your responsibilities and the challenges you face.
“Signing Agents often have had to meet widely varying requirements and qualifications from one company to another,” said NNA President and CEO Thomas Heymann. “The Standards and new Certified Signing Specialist designation are intended to provide a set of qualifications and practices for everyone. Ultimately, they should help reduce the number of different requirements Notaries face to keep getting loan-signing assignments.”
“The banks and title companies depend on the professionalism and competency of the person at the signing table,” Cristy Ward, Chief Strategy Officer of Mortgage Connect and a Workgroup participant, said in a recent interview. “Upholding the recommended Standards assures a consistent closing experience for all of the parties involved in the transaction.”
In fact, a key focus for lenders and regulators alike is improving the borrower’s experience. In that context, even though you generally don’t work directly for lenders, you represent them with every loan you handle.
Speaking during an industry panel discussion at NNA 2013 Conference last June (see the July 2013 issue of The National Notary), Donna Davidson, Vice President of Vendor Management for Citibank, put it succinctly: “Most of the time, you’re the only face our borrowers are going to see.”
The workgroup coined the Certified Signing Specialist designation for two reasons. First, the concept of a Certified Signing Specialist recognizes the fact that you possess qualifications and expertise that those outside your field do not. Second, lenders prefer not to call you “agents” because that term carries a specific legal meaning that implies you have the authority to act on their behalf as though they were personally present.
What Are The Standards?
The Standards are comprised of five elements:
- The Certified Signing Specialist Code of Conduct
- Standardized signing script
- Annual examination
- Annual background screening
- Notary errors and omissions insurance
The heart of the Standards is the Certified Signing Specialist Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct is organized into 10 Guiding Principles encompassing more than 100 individual Standards of Practice. They cover everything from protecting signers’ privacy and acting in a professional manner to not providing unauthorized advice or services and reporting illegal or suspicious activity. To obtain and maintain the Certified Signing Specialist designation, you will be required to sign an acknowledgment stating that you will abide by the Code of Conduct’s Standards of Practice.
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The Standards also include a uniform Signing Script that outlines how a signing should be conducted and how you should answer questions about each document. It also indicates when to direct the signer to contact the lender and when you should call the title company representative. The Script was included in the Standards in large part to create a high-quality customer experience at the signing table from signing to signing. As a Certified Signing Specialist, you will be expected to use the Script for all signings.
You also will be expected to pass an annual exam, which will be created by the Signing Professionals Workgroup — with a score of at least 80 percent — covering the Signing Script as well as knowledge of loan documents and best practices outlined in the Code of Conduct.
The annual exam is in keeping with the requirements for other professionals working in the real estate finance industry. Mortgage originators, for example, are required under federal law to complete at least eight hours of continuing education each year.
In addition, the SPW will continue revising the Standards as regulations and market conditions change. Annual testing will be necessary to ensure that Signing Specialists keep abreast of any updates.
Background screenings have become a common expectation for Signing Agents, but not all screenings are the same, and an annual screening is new. For background screenings to be acceptable under the Standards, they must include searches in state, local and federal records and follow a point system assigned to specific offenses for calculating the pass/fail result. In opting for an annual screening, the SPW noted that Signing Specialists routinely handle documents containing sensitive consumer financial information and are invited into borrowers’ homes.
“At the end of the day, it’s our job to protect the consumer, and to provide the best closing experience possible,” Ward said at the NNA 2013 industry panel.
The annual background screening also protects you because it helps keep people out of the profession who should not be handling the sensitive consumer information contained in loan documents or entering peoples’ homes. Without the background screenings, unscrupulous individuals could enter the profession and misuse their trusted position, and just a few widely publicized cases could tarnish all of you.
The final Standard requires $25,000 Notary errors and omissions insurance for Certified Signing Specialists. While lenders and title companies commonly required NSAs to maintain Notary errors and omissions insurance, the amounts varied. During Workgroup deliberations, participants debated how much E&O insurance Signing Specialists should carry, with some arguing for a minimum coverage of at least $100,000. Some lenders even require $500,000. Because Notary E&O insurance only covers notarial errors, the workgroup decided that $25,000 in coverage was adequate.
The Standards will be rolled out in the coming months as the SPW establishes an application and vendor review process to license qualified companies to offer certification services. In addition, the SPW is creating procedures for monitoring and auditing vendors to make sure their programs comply with the Standards. This is vital because vendors will be creating a new generation of highly-skilled and qualified Certified Signing Specialists.
Perhaps the most significant single development leading to the formation of the SPW and the publishing of Certified Signing Specialist Standards was the passage in 2010 of the federal Dodd-Frank Act and its creation of a new federal agency — the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) — with sweeping powers to regulate all types of financial companies.
Shortly after its inception in July 2011, the CFPB set up a consumer complaint system that received more than 85,000 mortgage-related reports from disgruntled borrowers through June of this year. Spurred by the flood of consumer reaction, the agency has issued thousands of pages of new regulations, recommendations and guidance. It also has brought numerous enforcement actions costing lenders and other financial companies more than $750 million in refunds and penalties. And it has implemented an active audit program for the companies it regulates.
All of this work is focusing on protecting the consumer and pressing the financial industry to provide a much better and more consistent customer experience regardless of the bank or title company involved.
The publication in April 2012 of a CFPB Bulletin under the heading, “Service Providers,” prompted executives at several of the top major lenders and title underwriters to start addressing what happens at the signing table.
The two-and-a-half-page Bulletin noted that financial institutions cannot shift the burden of complying with federal law to the service providers they hire, but are ultimately responsible for ensuring that their service providers follow the law. A service provider that fails to uphold the law or has “weak internal controls” can harm consumers and create potential liabilities for themselves and their contracting firms.
“Lenders are being held accountable for the actions of their outside service providers, such as title companies and whoever they hire — including Signing Specialists,” Heymann said.
The CFPB Bulletin told lenders to verify that their service providers complied with federal law and maintained “appropriate training and oversight of employees or agents.” In addition, lenders are expected to establish ongoing monitoring programs, and put in place enforceable consequences for providers who fell short and failed to quickly address their shortcomings.
As a result, these expectations have been incorporated in the contracts between banks and title companies, which in turn affect signing services and Signing Specialists. Failing to abide by the terms of the contacts can have serious consequences for title companies and lenders.
“We can lose literally millions of dollars because of a poor signing,” Ward said during the NNA 2013 session. “So we have taken a lot of precautions to make sure we are looking at the quality of the loan docs that are coming back to us.”
That is why the SPW is paying attention to what happens at the signing table.
The importance of the Standards to the mortgage origination industry cannot be underestimated, Heymann noted. “Every Notary who becomes a Certified Signing Specialist and every company that relies on them is operating under the same rules and knows exactly what to expect at the signing table,” he said. “Only good things will happen by everybody working together.”