The Mystery of the Missing Minutes: How Community Association Document Retention Protects Against Liability

Who Voted for What and When…Where Did the Minutes go?

Here is a cautionary tale: Your board of directors voted for a big capital improvement project along with a special assessment. Like a well-governed association, they memorialized the motion and the vote from the meeting in the minutes. With that project, the association needs to make a special assessment because the reserves were not funded well. A few owners are not happy about the special assessment and retained a lawyer to strike it down.

Years go by before it makes it to court and in discovery, the plaintiffs request the minutes as proof that the board did their fiduciary duty when making the decision. Except, after all this time has passed, the association has changed management companies and the minutes are nowhere to be found. Nobody remembers anything: some old board members have moved on; the management companies did not keep your minutes or did not turn them over to the new management company.

Now all the association can do is pay the attorneys (a big waste of money) and start all over again. This is how, without a community association document retention policy in place, a simple capital improvement project which may have cost $50,000.00 is overshadowed by a massive and unnecessary loss of resources for your community association.

HOA Document Retention

Safeguarding Your Documents Protects You from Liability

Boards may change over time, but the safekeeping of all records does not. When a new board is elected, it is the obligation of the outgoing board to return or hand over all community records — most important of all the minutes of all their meetings. If a new management company is hired, they must obtain all the documentation and records from the previous management company. Unfortunately, it’s often a futile task, and you might as well be looking for your documents in the Bermuda Triangle.

Most state laws require that community associations keep records for five to seven years (depending on the state). If there are no statutes regarding document retention, common sense tells you that they should be retained and accessible.

A simple test to know if your community is protected

If you are a board member or an owner, ask your management company to produce records of minutes from a meeting five years ago. Ask them for the budgets for the last three years. This should not be a difficult request. This is a simple test that can be conducted by diligent board members to ensure your record-keeping obligations are being met. If they cannot find the last three years’ budgets, you have a very big problem.

Community associations are required to retain a large number of records, many more than any individual director is accustomed to in their personal lives. So naturally, the task falls on the management company. Failure can have various negative effects, particularly, as in the example above, when the association gets sued.

Improper Documentation can Lead to an Inability to Collect on Delinquencies

Here’s another example: What if a board has decided to put Mister Delinquent into collections for non-payment of assessments for the past three years (don’t be surprised, some boards will wait before moving on an issue like this). Your collection agency asks for the budgets and minutes of budget meetings to verify the debt and they are nowhere to be found. I think you can guess how this pans out. Without the budget minutes and other documents required to put a budget into play, from a legal point of view, there is no debt to collect.

Condo Association Document Retention

In the midst of chaos, You need a source of truth

Let’s face the facts and understand that community associations are volatile environments and quite dynamic. Boards of Directors change, emotions run high, management companies are dismissed frequently, as are attorneys, vendors, and whoever else gets an opportunity to work for an association. Sometimes by accident (and sometimes by design) disgruntled board members, dismissed employees (managers), or untrained office staff may feel that the round file (garbage can) is for everything that is over a year old.

The minutes are the history of all board actions and decisions and losing them is like losing your medical records…It’s unhealthy for your community’s future. Yet many associations continue to work the same way they did in 1961 and everything is committed to paper. In essence, your so-called paper trail has fallen into a deep dark abyss never to be found again.

These days you can have virtual meetings so why not digitize the minutes and keep them safe? It costs very little to set up a cloud drive for the community to store valuable documents. Association servers or cloud-based document retention services should be filled with documents and files to protect the community from liability. Time marches on and technology continues to advance: don’t let your association be left behind.

Community Association Document Retention

The solution? A Community Association Document Retention Policy

So now that a potential problem has been identified, what are the possible solutions?  First and foremost, as mentioned above, the board of directors must establish a record-keeping policy and protocol which involves voting on it and memorializing this in the minutes. Don’t lose those minutes and approve them at the next meeting. Said policy should identify all the records that an association must keep and for how long. 

Figuring where to start when writing your community association document retention policy should be easy since most states, already require retention of certain documents. In addition to the documents required by the state, be sure to include any documents that support and protect the interests of the community association’s business. Because, make no mistake, helping to prevent future costly lawsuits and legal defense funds is certainly in the community’s best interest.

Community Association document retention isn’t just for minutes. Whether your state requires it or not, it behooves your board to hold on to certain items that may be needed in a future lawsuit. Those include:

  • governing documents
  • insurance policies
  • vendor contracts
  • accounting ledgers
  • audit reports
  • reserve/engineering studies
  • warranties
  • proof of meeting notices
  • all meeting minutes (public and private)
  • collection policies & payment plan agreements
  • proof of mailings
  • any other processes that can be documented or may be disputed in the future
Document Retention 4

Lock it Down… For the Future

Sloppy or lackadaisical record keeping can have disastrous effects on community associations. It is the responsibility of BOTH the boards of directors and the management companies to ensure that the community is protected from liability. The best way to do that is to lock down everything and store your important documents in the cloud.

If you have been planning to move your records to the cloud “someday” consider today that day. This is a project worth getting to work on right away because bad things can happen in the wink of an eye. Your first, and sometimes only defense against problems in the future, is documenting everything today.

If you want to learn more about community association governance please contact us for a free no obligation collections analysis and we will be glad to speak to you about all other matters that you may have questions about.

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