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Indiana Court Releases Mortgage On Parents' Farmland Based On Material Alteration Of Kids' Loan

Lesson. Sometimes a lender will loan money to a borrower that is secured with collateral, such as a mortgage, pledged by a third party. These third parties are known as sureties. If a lender materially changes the terms of the original loan without the knowledge or consent of the surety, then the surety’s collateral will be released.

Case cite. Brooks v. Bank of Geneva, 97 N.E.3d 647 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018); reaffirmed, 103 N.E.3d 197 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018)

Legal issue. Whether a mortgage pledged by third parties was released when the terms of the borrower’s loan were altered.

Vital facts. A bank granted a loan to a married couple (borrowers) for their dairy farm.  The couple gave the bank a mortgage on real estate they owned.  For the purpose of partially securing the couple’s debt, the wife’s parents also granted a mortgage to the bank on farmland they owned. Importantly, the parents were not personally liable for the underlying debt. 

Over the next year or so, the bank issued four other loans to the borrowers that were secured by their own real estate. The parents were unaware of these additional loans. About a year after that, the bank, again without the parents’ knowledge, agreed to change the terms of the original promissory note to permit semi-annual payments instead of monthly payments. Over the following couple of years, the borrowers began selling off their mortgaged real estate, as well as their farm equipment and cattle, to pay off the four loans that were not secured by the parents’ real estate. The sale proceeds “greatly exceeded” the amount of the original note secured in part by the parents’ farmland. Subsequently, the borrowers defaulted under the original note.

Procedural history. The bank filed a collection lawsuit against both the borrowers and the parents and specifically sought to foreclose on the parents’ farmland. The bank filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. The court decreed that the parents’ property should be sold to satisfy the borrowers’ debt. The parents appealed.

Key rules. One who mortgages his land to secure the debt of another is a “surety” to the debtor (the borrower). Indiana law is well settled that a surety’s collateral “is released by any action of the creditor [the lender] which would release a surety, such as the extension of the time of the payment of the debt, the acceptance of a renewal note, or the release of other security.”

A surety is similar to a guarantor. In Indiana, if a borrower and lender “make a material alteration in the underlying obligation without the consent of the guarantor, the guarantor is discharged from further liability.” The test for “material alternation” is “one that changes the legal identity of the debtor’s contract, substantially increases the risk of loss to the guarantor, or places the guarantor in a different position.”

The nature of the “alteration” is irrelevant and can even benefit the surety. If the alteration entails “either a change in the physical document or a change in the terms of the contract between the debtor and creditor that creates a different duty of performance on the part of the debtor,” then such change will be deemed material and will discharge the surety from liability.

Holding. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s summary judgment for the bank and, in doing so, found that the parents’ mortgage had been released. The Court reaffirmed its opinion on rehearing.

Policy/rationale. The Court reasoned that the bank materially altered the subject promissory note two ways and did so without the parents’ knowledge or consent:

    First, the payment terms went from monthly to semi-annually. Even though the accommodation may have helped the borrowers’ cash flow and did not change the amount of the debt, the parents were entitled to know about it and protect themselves accordingly.

    Second, and perhaps more importantly, the bank had released the borrowers’ mortgage on four other parcels of land. By doing so, the bank placed the parents “in a much more perilous position” as the holders of the only remaining real estate to secure the loan.

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My practice includes representing lenders, borrowers and guarantors in contested commercial mortgage foreclosure cases. If you need assistance with a similar matter, please call me at 317-639-6151 or email me at john.waller@woodenlawyers.com. Also, don’t forget that you can follow me on Twitter @JohnDWaller or on LinkedIn, or you can subscribe to posts via RSS or email as noted on my home page.

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