ULC

UCC Article 4A, Funds Transfers (1989) Summary

The payment of obligations is of vital importance to almost all commercial transactions. Occasionally problems arise when payment is not made, or is made improperly. It is neither convenient nor prudent to pay large or even modest obligations in actual cash. So, individuals and corporations, big account holders and small, have turned to bank accounts and bank credit, and have paid obligations by written instruments that accomplish a transfer of bank credit—check, money order, bank draft, etc.

For the past twenty years, in every state, the rights and obligations of parties to payment by check have been governed by Articles 3 and 4 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). Checks will remain the method by which many obligations are paid for the foreseeable future. However, electronic technology is now a fact of life and new methods for transferring bank credit for the purposes of payment are a result. Article 4A is a reflection of this fact.

How has technology affected systems of payment? Most people are aware of automated teller machines for their personal use. Indeed, these machines have become very popular. But such technology is widely used to make large transfers of funds that satisfy obligations arising from commercial transactions as well. The technology is simply too convenient and too fast not to be used for the transfer of large sums around the world.

The amounts which move through the large value automated systems are truly staggering. In 1989 as Article 4A is promulgated, one trillion dollars are transferred on an average day. In 1989, a record day of three trillion dollars was recorded. This is roughly the 1989 gross national product of the United States. Undoubtedly, this record will be surpassed in due course and probably frequently in the future. Such figures indicate the impact of the technology. They also indicate the need for some governing law.

In 1989, as the new Article 4A is proposed to the states for adoption, there is no backstop statutory law to govern funds transfers. The rules for checks in Articles 3 and 4, which utilize the signatures and endorsements on the check as the basis for determining liability, do not apply to electronic funds transfers. Nor are the rules governing the liability of banks to customers under Article 4 helpful. Many transfers in the United States are effected through electronic transfer networks; one is owned and operated by the Federal Reserve and is known as FedWire and the other is owned and operated by the New York Clearing House and is known as CHIPS (Clearing House Interbank Payments Systems). Each of these systems has rules to govern transactions between participating banks, but they do not affect bank customers. Outside FedWire and CHIPS, common-law contract rules are the basis for determining liability. However, serviceable, negotiated contracts are rare. Bank customers usually need a funds transfer immediately and do not take the time to negotiate a contract. Transfers are frequently made in a legal void.

Article 4A is the remedy for this void. Because the total volume of funds transfers is very great and because many individual transactions are very large, the cost of uncertainty in the law could be very high. Article 4A is necessary to the continued usage of existing funds transfers and for the anticipated future expansion in this usage.

Some terminology is necessary to follow a funds transfer under Article 4A. A "sender" is any person or entity who sends a "payment order." The first sender is the originator, and subsequent senders are banks participating in the transfer. A sender communicates a "payment order" to a "receiving bank." Receiving banks become senders if they forward "payment orders" to other banks. The last bank in the communications chain is the beneficiary's bank, and it can never be a sender with respect to the specific funds transfer. The "beneficiary" is the entity that the sender intends to pay. A "payment order" is simply the form of communication that the parties to a funds transfer agree to use. The payment order's salient characteristics are that it calls for an unconditional payment of money from the sender to the beneficiary and that it is transmitted to a receiving bank.

Unless the persons or entities involved in a payment of money use the same bank, a funds transfer involves at least four parties: the originator of the payment; the bank to which the originator communicates the first payment order; the beneficiary's bank that receives the final payment order; and last, the beneficiary. Intermediary receiving and sending banks also may be involved. These are banks that act as conduits of payment when there is no capacity to communicate directly between the originator's bank and the beneficiary's bank.

An example illustrates the process of a funds transfer. Suppose Alpha Corporation wants to pay money to Beta Corporation to satisfy a large contractual obligation. Alpha is in New York, and Beta is in California. Alpha has a bank account with a balance sufficient to pay Beta at First Bank in New York. Beta maintains an account at Second Bank in California. The process of payment is simple.

Alpha orders First Bank to pay the owed money to Beta through a transfer to Second Bank. Alpha's order is pursuant to an agreement that Alpha has with First Bank. When First Bank receives the payment order from Alpha, it communicates with Second Bank. The communication indicates that a specific amount at First Bank held for Alpha will be transferred to Second Bank with the understanding that it will be passed on to Beta. Second Bank accepts this second payment order and notifies Beta that the money is available to Beta. Value passes between the two banks through accounting entries in a process known as settlement.

With simple transactions, why do we need a whole new article in the Uniform Commercial Code? New law—or any law—isn't necessary if everything works. But what if something goes wrong? What if First Bank makes a mistake as to the amount to be paid? What happens if Second Bank doesn't notify Beta? What happens if the payment order is fraudulent, and not actually issued by Alpha? What happens if there is a bank failure? These are a few examples of possible errors.

A funds transfer is like a string of Christmas lights: everything is fine until a light burns out. There must be a remedy for the burned out light, and to the extent there are losses they must be paid. What are the remedies if someone takes a loss? Who bears the risk of loss at a given time in the transactional process? No adequate answers to these questions exist without a backstop statutory law that allocates the loss at the appropriate places in the funds transfer. Article 4A provides clear and reliable answers, and thereby keeps the string of lights burning.

To resolve the problem of who is responsible when something in a funds transfer goes wrong, Article 4A divides the actions of the parties to a funds transfer into three essential parts. First, a funds transfer is initiated by the originator and accepted by the originator's bank. Part 2 of Article 4A, entitled "Issue and Acceptance of Payment Order," governs the relationship between the sender of a payment order and the receiving bank that will execute the payment order. What constitutes acceptance and rejection (both rightful and wrongful) of a payment order, and what must be done to amend a payment order, are determined by the rules of Part 2, as these involve the relationship between the sender and receiving bank in a funds transfer.

As between sender and receiving bank, who suffers a loss if there is a mistake? Part 2 of Article 4A resolves this critical issue. Two kinds of mistakes can occur between sender and receiving bank, an unauthorized payment order and an erroneous payment order. The key to the rules on an unauthorized payment order is the "security procedure" that exists between sender and receiving bank. This is the agreed procedure that verifies the authenticity of a payment order or other relevant communication. In electronic funds transfer systems, the security procedure is an important element, and may involve codes, encryption, callback procedures, and the like. Any procedure that can be devised to protect the transaction is eligible. To be legally effective, it must only be commercially reasonable.

The security procedure determines who takes the risk of loss when there is an unauthorized payment order. If there is a commercially reasonable security procedure that is followed by the receiving bank, the sender must absorb the loss. If the sender proves that the security procedure was not followed or was breached by someone outside the control of the sender, the receiving bank takes the loss. The assumption is that the security procedure, if followed and not breached, will verify the authenticity of payment orders.

The risk of loss for an erroneous payment order also hinges upon compliance with a security procedure for detecting error. If the sender proves that it complied with the security procedure, the receiving bank takes the loss. Otherwise, the sender is responsible for erroneous orders.

The second part of a funds transfer is the passage of funds from receiving bank to receiving bank, until the beneficiary's bank is contacted. This is covered by Part 3 of Article 4A, which is entitled "Execution of Sender's Payment Order by Receiving Bank."

Rules governing the relationship between receiving banks are contained in this part. A principal obligation of a receiving bank (other than the beneficiary's bank) is to "execute" a payment order once it has accepted the order—that is, pass it on to the next bank in the string. It executes by issuing a payment order to the next bank. (The beneficiary's bank has a different obligation. It must pay the obligation to the beneficiary, and that is covered in Part 4 of Article 4A.) Unless agreed otherwise, a bank may use any commercially reasonable method to issue a payment order. A receiving bank is, generally, responsible for any error it commits in issuing a payment order. If a receiving bank overpays the beneficiary of a payment order, the excess is recovered from the beneficiary, not from prior senders. If a receiving bank pays a person or entity that is not the intended beneficiary, recovery is from the person receiving the money, and not from any prior sender. Only if a receiving bank underpays in a payment order, may the bank recover from prior senders, and then only an amount to cover the error and only if it issues a curative order.

Part 3 of Article 4A covers other issues pertaining to receiving banks. For instance, rules on reporting an erroneous payment order and late execution of a payment order are furnished.

The last part of a funds transfer involves actual payment to the beneficiary. It is the subject of Part 4 of Article 4A, "Payment." Each sender, going back to the originator, is obligated to pay. At a given time, the beneficiary is considered to have been paid. There is a two step approach to actual payment, although the steps are accomplished simultaneously if the transfer is made by Fedwire.

First, credit is extended by each receiving bank to each sender when the sender's payment order is accepted—basically, a communications function. The second stage involves settling up between participants—the actual passage of value.

Perhaps the most important section in Part 4 is Section 4A-402. It provides that a sender of a payment order is obliged to pay the amount of the order to the receiving bank if the funds transfer is properly completed. It is essential to distinguish, in this regard, a payment order from a check.

A check is a kind of payment order. When a person writes a check on an account, it orders the institution in which the account resides to pay money to a named person (whose technical name is the payee). Although a check suspends the liability of the person who writes it for an underlying obligation until the instrument is rightfully presented for payment and paid at the institution in which the account resides, it can be passed from person to person as payment for other obligations and accrues and extinguishes liabilities for those persons as it passes between them. If the institution refuses to pay when the check is presented, then the person who initially wrote the check is liable for the underlying obligation as well as for the check.

In contrast, acceptance of a payment order for a funds transfer by a receiving bank obligates the sender to pay that bank, and that bank alone. There is no instrument that may be passed from hand to hand as payment between other people. There are no lingering liabilities that result from the negotiability of an instrument. A payment order for a funds transfer is simple and direct.

How does settlement take place? If the sender is a bank, and the funds transfer is through one of the funds transfer systems, payment takes place according to the rules of the system that govern settlement between banks. Typically, payment is a matter of debiting an account of the sender with the receiving bank, and crediting the receiving bank's account. These methods hold whether the sender is an individual or a bank.

The beneficiary's bank, the last bank in the string, is responsible for paying the beneficiary. Payment generally takes place by crediting an account of the beneficiary, although satisfaction of a beneficiary's debt also constitutes payment, and payment in general occurs when the funds are available to the beneficiary for withdrawal. The originator of a payment order, that first light in the string of lights, generally is deemed to have paid the beneficiary on the underlying commercial obligation when the beneficiary's bank accepts the payment order. If it seems premature to discharge the originator, it is because at the time of acceptance by the beneficiary's bank, the originator has done all in its power to see that the beneficiary has obtained a credit balance at the beneficiary's bank in the agreed-upon amount. It is analogous to a situation where the originator has deposited cash to the beneficiary's account at beneficiary's bank. At that point, the originator's obligation to the beneficiary should be considered satisfied.

Finally, there are some other features of Article 4A to be considered. First, any transaction that is subject to the Electronic Funds Transfer Act of 1978 is not subject to Article 4A. This express exclusion places consumer transactions outside Article 4A, and leaves them to federal law. Second, the regulations and operating circulars of the Federal Reserve Board supersede any inconsistent provision of Article 4A. Third, transfer system rules will prevail if inconsistent with any part of Article 4A. Fourth, it is possible to vary the effect of most of the provisions of Article 4A, honoring the general Uniform Commercial Code policy of freedom of contract.

The fifth matter of special interest needs extra emphasis. Funds transfers occur and are useful so long as it is fast, efficient and inexpensive to use current and future electronic methods. A great deal of money can be passed through the current system for very little comparative cost. Therefore, Article 4A limits consequential damages for improper payment orders. Consequential damages might raise costs, reduce transaction speed by requiring the exercise of discretion by management, and increase uncertainty.

Article 4A of the Uniform Commercial Code is essential law. The continuance and viability of funds transfers depends upon its advancement in the states. And uniformity is an absolute requirement in every state, unconditionally and without deviation. Otherwise, there will be impairment of the functioning of funds transfers for the long term.