April 14, 2023


In this comprehensive article, readers will learn about the concept of liens, the different types of liens such as voluntary and involuntary liens, and common examples such as mortgage and property tax liens. The article then delves into the process of establishing a lien, the priority of liens, how disputes are resolved, and how liens can be removed. Finally, the article discusses the importance of liens in real estate transactions and the role of title insurance in protecting property owners and purchasers from potential lien-related issues.

A lien is a legal claim or right that a creditor (the person or entity that is owed money) places on property owned by the debtor (the person who owes money) as a form of security for the debt owed. The purpose of a lien is to ensure that the creditor has a legal right to seize or sell the debtor’s property if they fail to repay the debt according to the terms of the agreement.

Liens can be imposed on both real and personal property, including real estate, automobiles, and other valuable assets. Once a lien is in place, the debtor cannot sell or transfer the property without first resolving the debt or obtaining the consent of the creditor to remove the lien.

Definition and Purpose of Liens

The term “lien” is derived from the term “obligation” or “bond.” In legal terms, a lien is a security interest in someone else’s property granted to the creditor to secure a debt. Simply put, it prevents the debtor from selling or otherwise transferring ownership of the property until the debt is repaid.

The primary purpose of a lien is to provide the creditor with a method for recovering their monetary loss if the debtor fails to repay the debt. The lien provides the creditor with a legal right to the property, which can be sold or foreclosed upon to reimburse the creditor for the owed amount. Additionally, because the lien restricts the debtor’s ability to transfer ownership or refinance the property, it typically encourages them to pay off the debt as soon as possible to clear the lien.

Types of Liens

There are two primary types of liens: voluntary liens and involuntary liens. Each type has its own specific characteristics, procedures for attachment and release, and associated consequences for the debtor and creditor involved.

Voluntary Liens

Voluntary liens are created through a mutual agreement between the debtor and creditor. The debtor willingly grants the creditor a lien on their property as collateral for a loan or other financial arrangement. A common example of a voluntary lien is a mortgage. When a person borrows money to purchase a home, they agree to give the lender a lien on the property until the loan is repaid in full.

The key characteristic of a voluntary lien is the debtor’s consent to the lien being placed on their property. Because the debtor has willingly agreed to the lien, they are typically aware of it and understand their obligation to repay the debt to remove the lien. From the creditor’s perspective, voluntary liens offer a relatively secure means of recovering their investment if the debtor defaults on the loan as they can take possession of the collateral property.

Involuntary Liens

Involuntary liens are imposed on a debtor’s property without their consent due to a legal judgment or government action. These liens arise from situations where the debtor has failed to meet a financial obligation, such as unpaid taxes, overdue child support, or outstanding judgments from lawsuits.

Some common examples of involuntary liens include tax liens, judgment liens, and mechanic’s liens. A tax lien is imposed by the government on a person’s property due to unpaid taxes, while a judgment lien arises when a court issues a judgment against a debtor for unpaid debts. A mechanic’s lien can be placed on a property when a contractor or subcontractor has not been paid for work performed.

Involuntary liens can remain on a debtor’s property indefinitely until the debt is satisfied, and they will typically prevent the debtor from selling, refinancing, or transferring ownership of the property. In some cases, the creditor may even initiate a legal process to force the sale of the property in order to satisfy the debt. However, because involuntary liens are not initiated by the debtor, they may be unaware of the lien or the underlying obligation prompting its imposition, making it even more critical to resolve any outstanding debts to avoid involuntary liens.

Common Types of Liens

Liens are legal claims made by creditors against a debtor’s property in order to secure repayment of a debt. A lien can grant the creditor the right to take possession of the property or compel its sale, using the proceeds to satisfy the outstanding debt. There are several common types of liens that may be placed on a debtor’s property depending on the nature of the debt.

Mortgage Liens

A mortgage lien is a legal claim on a property arising from a mortgage agreement between a borrower and a lender. In most cases, the lender is a bank or financial institution. When a borrower purchases a property using a mortgage, the lender holds a lien on the property, which grants them the right to claim the property if the borrower defaults on their loan payments.

Mortgage liens are considered “voluntary” liens since the borrower willingly enters into the mortgage agreement at the time of property purchase. Should the borrower default on their mortgage payments, the lender can exercise their rights under the lien by initiating a foreclosure process. The property will then be sold, often at a public auction, with the proceeds used to repay the outstanding mortgage debt and any other dues to the lender.

Property Tax Liens

A property tax lien is a lien placed upon a property by the government due to the property owner’s failure to pay property taxes. State, county, or city governments generally have the right to place tax liens on real estate in their jurisdiction when property taxes remain unpaid.

Property tax liens take priority over other types of liens, including mortgage liens. This means that if a property is sold following a tax lien foreclosure, the proceeds from the sale will first go towards satisfying the outstanding property taxes before being distributed to other creditors. To protect their interest in the property, mortgage lenders typically require borrowers to pay property taxes and insurance as part of their monthly mortgage payments.

Mechanic’s Liens

A mechanic’s lien, also known as a construction lien, is a type of lien that may be placed on a property by a contractor, subcontractor, laborer, or material supplier who has not been paid for work completed or materials provided for the improvement of the property. Each state has specific laws and procedures governing mechanic’s liens, but generally, a contractor or supplier must file the lien within a certain period following the completion of the work or the supply of materials.

Mechanic’s liens are considered “involuntary” liens since they can be placed against the property without the owner’s permission. Should the property owner fail to pay the debt, the lien holder can initiate a foreclosure process to recover the debt.

Judgment Liens

A judgment lien is a lien that arises from a court judgment in favor of a creditor against a debtor. When a court determines that a debtor owes a specific amount of money to a creditor, the creditor may obtain a judgment lien, which they can then attach to the debtor’s property, such as real estate or personal property.

Judgment liens generally follow a specific order of priority, which means that a creditor with a lien placed on a debtor’s property earlier has a higher priority to receive the proceeds from the sale of the property compared to creditors with later liens. The priority of judgment liens may also be affected by state laws and regulations.

Consensual (Secured) Liens

Consensual liens, also known as secured liens or security interests, are created by an agreement between the debtor and the creditor. The debtor provides the creditor with a security interest in an asset in exchange for obtaining a loan or credit. Upon default, the creditor may claim possession or force the sale of the pledged asset to satisfy the outstanding debt.

Common examples of consensual liens include car loans and loans obtained using personal property as collateral. In these cases, the debtor willingly uses their property as security to obtain financing. This type of lien provides the creditor with a degree of protection against the risk of the debtor defaulting on their loan payments.

Establishing a Lien

A lien is a legal claim or right against a property, usually to secure payment towards a debt, obligation, or judgment. When a person or an entity (such as a creditor) places a lien on a debtor’s property, it is a way to ensure that the debtor fulfills their financial obligation. Liens can be placed on real property (like land or buildings) or personal property (like vehicles or equipment).

Establishing a lien involves adhering to a set of requirements, providing proper documentation, and filing with the appropriate authorities.

Requirements for Creating a Lien

The requirements for creating a lien vary depending on the jurisdiction (state, county, or local) and the type of lien being sought (such as mechanics’ liens, judgment liens, consensual liens, etc.). Generally, liens can be created through the following methods:

  1. By contract or agreement: Consensual liens are created when parties voluntarily agree to put a lien on a property as collateral for a loan or other obligations. A mortgage is an example of a consensual lien where the borrower agrees to put a lien on their property in favor of the lender.
  2. By law: Statutory liens are created by the operation of the law without the explicit consent of the property owner. For example, a tax lien is a statutory lien imposed on a property if the property owner fails to pay taxes owed to the government. Mechanics’ liens or materialmen’s liens are also statutory liens created to protect the rights of those who have supplied labor or materials for the improvement of real property.
  3. By judicial order: Judgment liens result from court orders where the court grants a lien over a debtor’s property to a judgment creditor to satisfy a judgment debt. The creditor is usually given the right to seize, sell, or foreclose on the property to satisfy the debt.

To create a valid and enforceable lien, the lien claimant must follow the specific statutory requirements of the jurisdiction. These requirements often include specific time limits for filing a lien, such as within a certain number of days from the completion of work or the delivery of materials.

Proper Notice and Documentation

Proper notice and documentation are vital in establishing a lien. Some jurisdictions require a lien claimant to serve the property owner with a preliminary notice, also known as a pre-lien notice, before a lien can be filed. The notice informs the property owner of the potential lien and the outstanding debt that the lien claimant seeks to recover. The notice must be served within a specific timeframe determined by the jurisdiction.

The lien claimant must also prepare and execute a valid lien document, which typically contains information such as the claimant’s name and address, a description of the property on which the lien is being claimed, the amount of the debt, and the specific dates of service or materials provided.

Filing and Recording a Lien

After preparing the lien document and serving any required notices, the lien claimant must file and record the lien with the appropriate local government office, such as the county recorder’s office or the land records department. The lien must be recorded within a specified timeframe after the completion of work or delivery of materials, as laid out in the jurisdiction’s lien laws.

Once the lien is filed and recorded, it becomes a matter of public record, giving notice to third parties, such as potential buyers or lenders, of the lien’s existence. It also establishes the lien claimant’s priority over subsequent lien claimants.

It is essential to follow all specific procedural requirements when establishing a lien, as failure to do so may render the lien invalid and unenforceable. In some cases, a property owner may file a motion to release an improperly filed lien or recover damages against the lien claimant. To ensure proper lien creation and enforcement, it is advisable to consult with an experienced attorney who is familiar with the laws and procedures in your jurisdiction.

Lien Priority and Disputes

Priority of Liens

When multiple liens are placed against a single property, understanding lien priority becomes crucial. Lien priority determines the order in which debts secured by liens are paid if the property is sold or foreclosed upon. In general, the priority of liens is based on the principle of “first in time, first in right.” However, there are exceptions to this rule, and disputes can arise when claimants argue over the validity or priority of liens.

First in Time, First in Right

The “first in time, first in right” principle means that the lien recorded first in the public records has the highest priority. If a property is sold or foreclosed upon, the debt secured by the first lien must be satisfied before any subsequent liens are paid. This order of priority continues down the line until all lien holders have either been paid or the proceeds from the sale are exhausted.

For example, suppose a homeowner obtains a mortgage to purchase a property. The mortgage lien is recorded first and has the highest priority. Later, the homeowner fails to pay property taxes, and the local government places a tax lien on the property. The tax lien is recorded after the mortgage lien, so it has a lower priority. If the property is foreclosed upon or sold, the mortgage lien holder will be paid before the government receives any proceeds to satisfy the tax lien.

Exceptions to Priority Rules

There are exceptions to the “first in time, first in right” rule, which can affect lien priority. For example, certain liens, such as property tax liens or mechanic’s liens, may be given priority over previously recorded liens in some jurisdictions. Additionally, lien priority can be altered by contractual agreements between the parties involved or by operation of law, such as bankruptcy.

In some cases, an initially low-priority lien can move up in priority if a higher-priority lien is paid off or released. For example, if a homeowner takes out a home equity loan in addition to a primary mortgage, the home equity loan will typically have a lower priority than the mortgage. However, if the mortgage is paid off or refinanced, the home equity loan may move up in priority.

Disputes Involving Liens

Disputes involving liens can arise from a variety of issues, including the priority of liens, the validity of liens, or the amount owed under the lien. These disputes can involve multiple parties, such as the debtor, lien holders, and even third parties who may have an interest in the property.

Resolution Methods

Many lien disputes can be settled through negotiation between the parties involved. For example, a lien holder may agree to lower their priority in exchange for payment. Alternatively, the parties may negotiate a payment plan or settlement amount to satisfy the debt without resorting to litigation. In some cases, alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or arbitration can also be used to resolve lien-related disputes.

Litigation and Lien Foreclosure

If the parties cannot reach an agreement on their own or through alternative dispute resolution methods, they may need to turn to the courts. Litigation can be costly and time-consuming, and the outcome may be uncertain.

In some cases, the lien holder may choose to foreclose on the property to satisfy the debt secured by the lien. A lien foreclosure is a legal process in which the lien holder is allowed to sell the property to recover the amount owed. However, before a lien holder can foreclose on a property, they must often file a lawsuit to establish their right to do so.

During lien foreclosure proceedings, the court will determine the priority of the liens and decide which lien holders are entitled to payment from the proceeds of the sale or foreclosure. The court may also address any disputes between the parties or invalidate liens that are found to be invalid or unenforceable. While lien foreclosure can ultimately result in the lien holder recovering the debt owed, the process can be lengthy and costly, so it is often a last resort for resolving lien disputes.

Removing and Releasing Liens

Liens are legal claims against assets which secure payment of a debt, like a mortgage being a lien on a house. There are various types of liens, including tax liens, judgment liens, and mechanic’s liens, among others. Removing a lien requires satisfying the debt by paying it off or negotiating an alternative solution. Once a lien is satisfied or released, it frees the asset from any further obligation to the creditor.

Satisfaction and Release of Liens

Satisfaction of a lien refers to fulfilling the underlying debt obligation, either by paying it off, negotiating a settlement, or as a result of a court order. Once the lien is satisfied, the creditor is required to provide the debtor with a lien release document, which proves the debt has been settled.

To release a lien, the debtor must obtain the release document from the creditor, file it with the appropriate government agency (usually the county recorder’s office), and ensure that the lien is removed from the public records. It’s important to keep a copy of the release document for future reference, as well as request confirmation from the government agency that the lien has been removed from public records. Failure to properly release a lien can lead to complications and legal issues down the road.

Paying Off a Lien

Paying off a lien involves making agreed-upon payments to the creditor until the debt is completely resolved. Once payment has been rendered in full, the creditor is obligated to provide a lien release document.

However, it’s important to note that not all liens are satisfied by simple repayment of the debt. Some creditors may require additional conditions, such as interest payments, fees, or penalties, and may even require the debtor to enter into a repayment agreement. In such cases, it’s essential to negotiate and come to clear terms with the creditor regarding the full satisfaction of the lien.

It’s also crucial to obtain a written agreement that outlines the terms of repayment, as well as evidence of the amount and date of each payment. This will serve as crucial proof when it comes to releasing the lien and removing any lingering obligations associated with it.

Discharging Liens in Bankruptcy

Filing for bankruptcy can discharge certain types of debts, potentially removing the liens associated with them. However, this process depends on the type of bankruptcy filed, the type of lien, and the status of the assets involved.

In most cases, filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy may eliminate unsecured liens like personal loans or credit card debt, but it does not automatically eliminate other types of liens, such as tax and mortgage liens. Chapter 13 bankruptcy, on the other hand, allows for the reorganization and repayment of secured debts, which may include the restructuring or removal of certain liens.

It’s crucial to work with an experienced bankruptcy attorney to determine the most effective strategy for removing liens through bankruptcy proceedings. Additionally, it’s important to remember that discharging the underlying debt does not always automatically remove the lien, which may still need to be formally released following the bankruptcy process.

Expiration and Statute of Limitations

Liens are subject to statutes of limitations, which dictate the time frame for creditors to enforce the lien or take legal action to recover the debt. The statute of limitations varies by state and type of lien.

If a lien has expired under the statute of limitations, it may be rendered unenforceable by law. However, it’s essential to verify the relevant expiration timeline and consult with an attorney before assuming the lien is no longer enforceable.

Furthermore, even if the statute of limitations has expired, the lien may still be listed on the public records, affecting the owner’s credit and ability to sell or refinance the asset. In such cases, it’s necessary to take appropriate steps to formally remove the lien from the records – ideally, by obtaining a release document from the creditor or proving the creditor’s claim is unenforceable due to the expired statute of limitations.

In summary, removing and releasing liens requires a thorough understanding of the specific debt and lien type, as well as negotiation with creditors and filing the appropriate documentation. In complex situations, consulting with a knowledgeable attorney can be invaluable in navigating the lien removal process.

Liens and Real Estate

A lien is a legal claim or encumbrance held by a creditor over a debtor’s property, granting the creditor the right to seize said property upon the debtor’s failure to fulfill their financial obligations. In the context of real estate, liens can have a significant impact on property transactions, as they can impede the sale or transfer of the property and expose both the property owner and the prospective purchaser to legal and financial risks.

Searching for Liens in Property Transactions

It is crucial for both a buyer and a seller to be aware of any liens attached to a property involved in a transaction. Several types of property liens exist, including:

  1. Mortgage liens: Occur when the property is used as collateral for a loan. The mortgage holder has the right to foreclose on the property if the borrower fails to make payments.
  2. Tax liens: Arise from unpaid property taxes or any other kind of taxes owed by the property owner. Taxing authorities, such as the state or municipality, can place a lien on the property until the outstanding taxes are paid.
  3. Judgment liens: Imposed by a court as a result of a legal judgment against the property owner for unpaid debts or damages. Judgment liens can be enforced by selling the property to satisfy the judgment.
  4. Mechanic’s liens: These can arise from the unpaid fees of a contractor, subcontractor, or supplier involved in construction or improvement of the property. The lien may be filed by the unpaid party and could result in foreclosure if the property owner does not pay.

To discover any existing liens, property buyers should conduct a thorough title search, which is a review of public records to determine the property’s legal ownership, history, existing liens, and any other potential issues.

A title search should be performed by an experienced professional, such as a title company or attorney, who is familiar with property law and state-specific regulations. A thorough title search protects buyers from acquiring an encumbered property and ensures a smooth transaction by identifying and addressing any issues prior to closing.

Title Insurance and Liens

Title insurance is a form of indemnity insurance that protects property owners and lenders from financial losses tied to defects in the property title, including pre-existing liens that may not have been discovered during the title search. Title insurance ensures that:

  1. The title is free and clear of any encumbrances, like liens or other claims, thus providing clear and marketable title.
  2. The title insurance company will investigate and defend against any legal disputes concerning the property’s title or liens.
  3. The insurer will cover any financial losses resulting from the defects in the title or the presence of undisclosed liens.

Two types of title insurance policies are available: lender’s title insurance and owner’s title insurance. Lender’s title insurance is required by most mortgage lenders to protect their investment, while owner’s title insurance is optional but highly recommended as it protects the buyer’s equity in the property.

Liability of Property Owners and Purchasers

Liability for a property lien typically falls on the property owner, who is responsible for paying off the lien to ensure property transfer. However, if a property is sold with an undisclosed or undiscovered lien, the buyer may unknowingly assume the responsibility for the lien, which can result in financial and legal issues.

To avoid liability for liens, property owners should actively monitor their own debt obligations and address any liens filed against their property. Additionally, they should be transparent with buyers about the property’s history and any current liens.

On the other hand, property purchasers must conduct a comprehensive title search and consider obtaining owner’s title insurance to protect themselves from unexpected liens and secure their investment. If a lien is discovered, the buyer should address the issue before closing by either requiring the seller to pay off the lien or negotiating the purchase price accordingly.

In conclusion, understanding the implications of liens in real estate is essential for both property owners and buyers to minimize potential financial and legal risks. Performing a thorough title search, obtaining title insurance, and addressing lien issues before closing ensures a successful and secure property transaction.

Liens FAQs

What is a lien, and why is it important?

A lien is a legal claim or security interest on a property, typically to ensure repayment of a debt, like a mortgage or a judgment for money owed. Liens are important because they protect the creditor’s investment and ensure payment priority in case of a property sale or foreclosure.

What are the different types of liens in the United States?

There are several types of liens in the United States: Consensual liens, which are voluntarily given by a debtor, like a mortgage or a car loan; statutory liens, created by laws like tax and mechanic’s liens; and judgment liens, which arise from a court order.

How can a lien be removed from a property?

To remove a lien from a property, the debt secured by the lien must be paid or satisfied, typically through a lien release or satisfaction document. In some cases, disputes can be resolved by negotiation, legal settlement, or court judgment, leading to the lien’s removal.

How do liens affect property sales?

Liens affect property sales by complicating the title transfer process. Typically, liens must be cleared or resolved before a sale can occur, which may require the seller to pay off the liens, negotiate with the lienholder, or delay the sale until the liens are settled.

Can multiple liens be placed on a single property?

Yes, multiple liens can be placed on a single property. When this occurs, the liens are prioritized based on their recording date or statutory priority, meaning some lienholders may receive payment before others if the property is sold or foreclosed.

What is the difference between a lien and an encumbrance?

A lien is a type of encumbrance—a claim or limitation against a property—specifically related to a debt or obligation. Other types of encumbrances include easements, covenants, and restrictions that don’t relate to debts but still impact the property’s use or transfer.

About the Author

As a native Washingtonian, Carlos Reyes’ journey in the real estate industry began more than 15 years ago when he started an online real estate company. Since then, he’s helped more than 700 individuals and families as a real estate broker achieve their real estate goals across Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.

Carlos now helps real estate agents grow their business by teaching business fundamentals, execution, and leadership.

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