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Defeasance Clause: Definition And Overview

Lauren Bowling5-minute read

May 07, 2021

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The “defeasance clause” – the phrase just sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? But in reality, the defeasance clause isn’t scary at all; it’s only invoked once you pay off your loan and meet the terms of your mortgage agreement. Hooray!

When you close on a home, you own it, right? Uhm, wrong. It’s a bit more nuanced and it depends on the state where you live. Depending upon your state, you may never even see or hear of a defeasance clause at all.

What Is A Defeasance Clause?

In a mortgage transaction, you’ll likely see two terms: there’s the mortgagee (the one giving the loan, aka the lender) and mortgagor (the one taking out the loan, aka the home buyer.)

Yes, it sounds more complicated than it is, but hang in there.

A defeasance clause is a term within a mortgage contract that states the property’s title (a fancy word for “ownership”) will be transferred to the borrower (mortgagor) when they satisfy payment conditions from the lender (mortgagee).

How Defeasance Clauses Work In A Mortgage

Legally, the concept of defeasance exists to protect the interests of you, the home buyer; it’s legally binding language that states when you pay off the loan of the house, you will then own the house outright and in full.

“But wait,” you’re thinking, “Didn’t I begin to own the home on the day of closing?”

Again, that depends on the state where you live and how they interpret an aspect of real estate law called mortgage theory.

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Lien Theory Vs. Title Theory

Real estate laws vary from state to state, but they do fall into one of two categories when it comes to mortgage law theory: lien theory or title theory.

  • In title theory states, the bank holds the ownership of the home until the loan is paid off.
  • In lien theory states, the person who buys the property owns it – but the bank places a property lien against it when the buyer takes out a mortgage.

In a lien theory state, upon signing the mortgage contract, a borrower also signs a security deed which gives the bank legal title of the property, with the borrower retaining equitable title. Equitable title isn’t the same as legal title, it just means the borrower has the right to possess the home for the duration of the loan unless they sell or default.

The main difference between the two is seen when foreclosure proceedings need to occur. In a title theory state, foreclosures must go through the court. In a lien theory state, foreclosures are non-judicial and managed by a trustee, typically without the involvement of the court system.

Essentially, it is harder for a bank to kick you out of a home that you have equitable title to (lien theory states) than in a state where the bank wholly owns title to the property (title theory state) and you’re paying off a debt.

Understanding Secured Title In Real Estate

Loans come in two varieties: secured and unsecured.

Unsecured debt is typically seen on smaller-balance financial products like credit cards. To give out large sums of money for expensive purchases like a home, most lenders require borrowers to secure the debt with collateral.

In most home purchase transactions, a buyer uses a mortgage to purchase the home, and secures the mortgage loan using that same property as collateral. With a secured mortgage the borrower is granted loan defeasance and a clear house title when they are able to fully repay their interest payments, principal and any other payment conditions.

In a lien theory state where a security deed is used to transfer legal title from the borrower to the bank at closing, the security deed is used to “secure” the mortgage rather than the home itself.

If it sounds confusing, it is. A lot of it boils down to the semantics of the law and depends upon how the state you’re living in decides to interpret real estate ownership as it relates to the law.

Really, the only time you’ll want to carefully examine your rights and what you’re entitled to (legally) is in the event of foreclosure or default of your mortgage loan.

Defeasance Clause Exceptions

Not all mortgage agreements will include a defeasance clause because real estate laws and language vary from state to state depending on the type of mortgage theory they use.

Since a defeasance clause conveys title upon satisfaction of the loan, these types of clauses are typically only used in title theory states where the bank holds ownership of the home until the mortgage is paid off. Over half of the states in the U.S. use title theory, including:

  • The Coast: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Washington D.C.
  • The South: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia
  • The Midwest: Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri
  • The West: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington (state), Wyoming

Alaska is also a title theory state. All of the rest in the U.S. not listed above are lien theory states.

The Bottom Line

Defeasance clauses aren’t scary, and they aren’t even typically necessary in most states. But if you do live in a title theory state, your mortgage loan terms will likely come with a defeasance clause in the fine print.

If you live in a title theory state, you want the defeasance clause language in the loan. It is to your benefit because it simply states that once you’ve paid off the loan in full, you then get full and clear title (ownership) of your home.

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Lauren Bowling

The Rocket Mortgage Learning Center is dedicated to bringing you articles on home buying, loan types, mortgage basics and refinancing. We also offer calculators to determine home affordability, home equity, monthly mortgage payments and the benefit of refinancing. No matter where you are in the home buying and financing process, Rocket Mortgage has the articles and resources you can rely on.