“Multiple Trust Account Violations” – A Regulatory Affairs Division Case Study

The Commission’s auditors visit brokers-in-charge throughout the state to perform spot audits of trust accounts. This case is an example of why brokers-in-charge are now required by Rule A.0110 to take the Basic Trust Account Course within 120 days of assuming responsibility for a trust account (but no more than every three years).  In the spot audit of a real estate firm that performed both sales and long term property management, the auditor found multiple areas of concern. Unfortunately, the broker-in-charge had been making mistakes in their trust account recordkeeping for so long that it was impossible to determine exactly how much of the money in the trust account belonged to which owner.  Being able to identify exactly whose money is in the bank is a primary reason for the trust accounting rules – A.0116, A.0117, and A.0118

The Ledger Problem:

The first problem the broker-in-charge had was that the software used for the property management accounting created ledgers where rent was treated like an accounts receivable, meaning that at the beginning of the month the rent populated as being due from the tenant. This is perfectly fine for tenant ledgers and tracking outstanding balances. However, Rule A .0117(c)(4) also requires that property or owner ledgers be maintained, and this firm did not have either. Property or owner ledgers should show the exact amount of money on hand, at any given time, for a particular property or owner. The problem with ledgers that populate an amount due is that, if the tenant does not pay their rent for that month or multiple months, there is a balance on the ledger that is an outstanding amount owed by the tenant when the ledger should indicate the amount of money on hand for the owner. 

Sometimes when ledgers do not exist or are unclear, auditors use owner statements as a substitute, which is what we attempted to do on this audit. In this case, many owner statements had negative balances. Negative balance owner statements indicate that the expenses exceeded the income for that particular owner. When more money is spent on a property than the owner has in the trust account, it usually means that another owner/client has just paid those expenses. This is one form of deficit spending. 

The Journal Problem:

Deposits and withdrawals on the ledgers and owner statements should be traceable to a journal.  A journal is a check register where all deposits and withdrawals in a trust account are recorded. In this case, a journal was maintained but individual entries were not recorded. Instead, one amount was entered for all deposits on one day and another lump sum entry was made for all the withdrawals. There was no way to trace deposits or withdrawals on the journal to the ledgers or to confirm that all the journal entries were being posted. 

The Reconciliation Problem:

In addition, there was no way to reconcile to the journal, which meant that the required three-way reconciliations were not being performed. The bank statements were not being reconciled against the journal because there was no way to confirm that the journal was accurate. The journal was not reconciled against the trial balance because no trial balance was maintained. 

A trial balance is the sum of all of the ledgers at a set cutoff date, usually the same date as the bank statement. If a property management firm represents fifty owners, then every month the balance of each of those fifty owner ledgers should be totaled. This total should match, exactly, the reconciled bank balance and journal balance. In this case, since there were no owner or property ledgers, a trial balance could not be produced. 

The Shortage Problem:

A true trial balance could not be created from the owner statements because of all the negative balances. Using the owner statements, even with the negative balances, it showed that the property management trust account had a significant shortage.

As seen in this case, failure to maintain trust account records properly at any stage in the process can have a domino effect. The auditor found other more minor infractions in addition to the major problems. The firm was given an opportunity to correct the deficiencies but they were unsuccessful in bringing the trust account into compliance and, therefore, received a disciplinary sanction. Trust account problems and shortages do not necessarily stem from theft or evil intent. A shortage can result if the broker-in-charge is not taking the necessary steps to maintain records. If any of the above sounds familiar (or unfamiliar) and you maintain a trust account, then take the trust account course and start to work on fixing your trust account records. It is only a matter of time before an auditor from the Commission will be knocking on your door.