Even though mechanics liens have been around in this country for about as long as construction itself, there’s still a great deal of confusion in the industry about how liens actually work. Case in point: the confusion around how long a mechanics lien lasts. We hear questions all the time, such as, “Does a lien cloud a property’s title forever? Does a lien expire? Do a lien have to be cancelled or released?”
A lien may expire, but it might not disappear
Mechanics lien laws exist in all 50 states, but each state’s lien law can be different. Therefore, the mechanics lien process varies from state-to-state. However, one thing that’s true in every state is that a mechanics liens will expire according to a specific, set timetable. While this timetable will vary from state-to-state, there’s no such thing as a mechanics lien that remains indefinitely valid in any state.
For example, for most cases in the state of California, a mechanics lien will expire 90 days from the date on which the lien was recorded. However, in Florida, mechanics liens generally last for a year after the recording date.
So, while every mechanics lien will expire eventually, that doesn’t mean that every mechanics lien automatically disappears when it expires. In fact, the exact opposite is true.
While an expired lien will no longer be valid and enforceable (and thus has lost its effectiveness as a tool to help remedy a payment issue), it still may remain attached to the underlying property. This is due to the fact that a mechanics lien claim is filed with the clerk of court or the county recorder. That means that the lien is literally in the records for the given property, much like a mortgage.
Therefore, if you filed a mechanics lien and allowed that lien to expire without further action taken, it’s likely that your lien is still just sitting there in the property records encumbering the property (or at least looking like it).
In order to disappear, a lien must be cancelled
Most of the time when a mechanics lien is filed, chances are that just the act of filing the lien was enough to prompt payment on your project. However, just like an expired lien doesn’t automatically disappear, the fact that you received payment doesn’t automatically make the mechanics lien disappear either.
If filing the lien was successful and you received payment — and even if you just decided not to pursue your lien claim — then the best thing (and the right thing, the smart thing, and probably even the legal thing) to do is to release the lien. Because if you don’t release the lien, anyone doing a title search on the property in question will stumble upon the mechanics lien filing, even if it is expired.
Bottom line: The mere presence of a lien can still cause issues for an owner — even if it is years beyond its expiration and obviously unenforceable.
The property owner will — at some point or another — need that mechanics lien document off the books. The property owner may ask nicely that you do this, or they may file a lawsuit to have the mechanics lien document formally released; and when they do file this lawsuit, it will be against the lien claimant and allege that since the lien is still of record and formally expired, it is “frivolous” and “slandering title.”
You’ll lose this court battle, and you may be responsible for costs, attorney fees and possibly statutory penalties! It’s a terrible situation to be in and one very, very easily avoided. Whether you got paid, or even if you’re just giving up on your mechanics lien claim and not pursuing it, release the mechanics lien once you no longer need.
Peter Menge is zlien's Content Manager. He works to create useful content that makes the mechanics lien and construction payment process simple, easy and fair for everyone in the construction industry.