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Master or Sub: Which Rules Do I Follow? by: Brian L. Shaw

Far too often an association’s board of directors has a hard enough time getting prospective purchasers (or long-time owners for that matter) to understand what it means to live in a deed-restricted community. Just getting people to read (and hopefully understand) the governing documents is quite the challenge. However, many associations not only have to enforce their own rules and regulations, but by virtue of being a sub-association, are bound to follow the extra layer of governance imposed by the master association.

A master association acts as an umbrella over the smaller association members, known as sub-associations. Sometimes the master association’s primary function is to ensure a common scheme or appearance is maintained between its member communities, while others simply maintain the common areas between the various communities, such as an entrance way, gazebo, or pool. In any event, the master association and its sub-associations each have their own governing documents that determine the relationship that the associations have with residents and with each other.  As a result, to help alleviate the added confusion caused by the various layers of rules, it is important that any board member of a sub-association and/or a master association be aware of the interplay between all of those involved.  

Here are some of the most important aspects of the relationship between a master association and a sub-association:

1. Dues:  Like any other community association, master associations collect dues periodically.  Most master associations collect dues from their sub-associations, rather than from unit owners.  However, it is possible for a master association to collect dues from unit owners directly, if its governing documents require it to do so. 

2. Maintenance obligations:  Master associations often include common areas that everyone within the master association is permitted to use.  The master association is usually required to maintain these areas.  Sometimes, sub-associations also have their own common elements that only members of the sub-association can use.  It is important to have a clear understanding of how both your association and your master association’s governing documents assign the maintenance responsibility for the different areas of the community.

3. Covenant enforcement:  Most master associations have their own covenants and restrictions that apply to the entire community, while sub-associations have covenants and restrictions that apply only to owners within the sub-association.  Again, these restrictions are unique to each individual community.

4.  Representation:  Most master associations and sub-associations have their own separate boards of directors and meetings.  Some master associations determine board membership by a general election, while others require each of its sub-associations to appoint one resident to serve on the master association’s board.  In some cases, the president of a sub-association’s board automatically serves as the representative to the master association.  

5. Conflicting rules:  Sub-associations cannot adopt rules that conflict with the restrictions in a master association’s Declaration and Bylaws.  All rules that a sub-association promulgates must be consistent with the rules that are in the master association’s governing documents.  

The bottom line is that, if you are a resident in a community that is governed by both a master association and a sub-association, you must abide by the restrictions in each association’s Declaration and Bylaws and the rules that each association’s board promulgates.  Often, you will be subjected to two layers of requirements. You must follow both.  As a result, you should be familiar with what each association’s governing documents require from you and what they require from each association.  You should also pay attention to decisions that both the master association’s board and the sub-association’s board make.  In instances where it is not clear what each association’s governing documents require, transparency and communication between each association and residents can prevent conflict and lead to an agreeable resolution.