Is the county register of deeds the most important county official?

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

Most people would answer the question in the headline with a resounding “no”. The county register of deeds is, however, one of those little known, rarely thought about, but critically important positions that impacts our lives in important ways we almost never think about. In the paragraphs below from the 2007 edition of Guide to Michigan County Government, written by MSU professor emeritus Ken VerBurg, we learn that the register of deeds office is “primarily concerned with the integrity of property records” in each county. 

Even the phrase “integrity of property records” doesn’t mean much until we think about it in more detail. For those of us who own homes, it means that the records that we depend on to be confident that others don’t have a legal claim to the home we own, are well kept, organized, and accurate to minimize the chance of a dispute about ownership. In fact, in Michigan, those records serve as the basis for the title insurance industry. In addition to relying on the records, buyers and sellers pay fees to title insurance companies to research the records, and based on their research, to insure that the records are accurate in their depiction of the ownership of property by the respective sellers and lenders, so that buyers can be confident they are making a legitimate purchase.

Here’s what Ken has to say generally about the position of register of deeds. In future Michigan State University Extension articles, we’ll look closer at the specific responsibilities. 

“This office is established along with the others in the 1963 Michigan Constitution as an elective office with a four-year term. The office of register is primarily concerned with the integrity of property records in each of the counties. They thus provide a key service to businesses such as real estate, legal, and title insurance companies as well as to individuals and corporations that own property. In addition, these offices administer the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) which governs records relating to various types of personal property. 

Registers of deeds are elected on a partisan basis during the presidential election years to a term that begins on January 1 following the November election. As is the case with other officers, registers of deeds must file an oath and a bond prior to taking office. The board of commissioners, however, may include the register in a county’s blanket bond if it so chooses. Each register must appoint a deputy register who serves at the pleasure of the register. In the larger counties (500,000 or more population), the registers of deeds (as well as other elected county officers) must appoint a chief deputy as well. The appointment of the deputy and a revocation of the appointment, should the register dismiss the deputy, must be in writing and filed with the county clerk’s office. Status as chief deputy makes the individual a county officer and this position is subject to the same rules regarding salary adjustments ⎯ the amount of the salary may not be reduced during a term of office. The deputy register may exercise the powers of the office during the absence of the register or in the event a vacancy in the office occurs.

Vacancies in the office of register of deeds can occur for a variety of reasons— resignation, death, appointment to another public office, removal by gubernatorial action or recall, change of residence outside the county, and others. Mid-term vacancies are filled by appointment, with the senior probate judge, the county clerk, and the prosecuting attorney serving as the selection committee. The appointee serves out the remainder of the term unless the vacancy develops during the first half of the term and 182 days or more before the mid-term gubernatorial election. Of course, the appointee may run for the position in that mid-term election and then serve out the remainder of the term.”

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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