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Judgment Requiring Payment Of Sum Certain Through Monthly Installments Until Paid Or “Until Death” Does Not Create Judgment Lien

Lesson. If the amount of a money judgment is contingent, then the judgment will not give rise to a statutory lien on the real estate of the obligor (or borrower).

Case cite. Harris v. Copas, 165 N.E.3d 611 (Ind. Ct. App. 2021)

Legal issue. Whether a divorce decree providing that Husband would pay Wife $75,000 in $500 monthly installments until paid in full or until Wife’s death constituted a money judgment entitling Wife to a lien against the marital home.

Vital facts. Husband and Wife divorced, and the decree provided, among other things, that Husband would become the sole owner of the marital home and that "[Husband] will pay [Wife] the sum of $75,000.00 at $500.00 a month starting June 15th 2017 until paid or death of [Wife].” The situation later became complicated for a variety of reasons, but for purposes of today’s post Wife contended that the divorce decree created a judgment lien on Husband’s real estate. She recorded a lis pendens notice against the marital home as part of her efforts to collect.

Procedural history. Husband filed a petition for, among other things, an order to dismiss the lis pendens notice. The trial court granted the petition and ruled that the contingent nature of the judgment “took it out of the purview of the judgment lien statute.” Wife appealed.

Key rules.

Indiana’s judgment lien statute (I.C. § 34-55-9-2) provides in relevant part:

All final judgments for the recovery of money or costs in the circuit court and other courts of record of general original jurisdiction in Indiana, whether state or federal, constitute a lien upon real estate and chattels real liable to execution in the county where the judgment has been duly entered and indexed in the judgment docket as provided by law[.]

Harris expressed that a “judgment for money is a prerequisite for the application of the judgment lien statute. A 'money judgment' is ‘any order that requires the payment of a sum of money and states the specific amount due, whether labeled as a mandate or a civil money judgment.’" Under Indiana law: "A money judgment must be certain and definite. It must name the amount due."

Holding. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court and held that Wife did not hold a statutory judgment lien on the marital home.  The holding necessarily included the dismissal of the lis pendens notice.  

Policy/rationale. Wife asserted that she held a $75,000 lien based upon the idea that the divorce decree constituted a money judgment against Husband that automatically created such lien. The Court disagreed, reasoning:

If the parties had simply agreed that [Husband] would pay [Wife] $75,000 in monthly $500 installments, there would be no dispute that [Wife] held a money judgment against [Husband]. However, the inclusion of the term "until paid or death of [Wife]" made the amount ultimately due to [Wife] unknowable and unascertainable because it could not be predicted when [Wife] would die. This is the antithesis of a statement of a "specific amount due" required of a money judgment.

The Court took the view that the divorce decree was not, in fact, a money judgment. It appears that the Court viewed the decree simply as a form of payment plan that, while enforceable, did not operate as the kind of judgment that could become a lien.

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I represent judgment creditors and lenders, as well as their mortgage loan servicers and title insurers, entangled in lien priority disputes. If you need assistance with a similar matter, please call me at 317-639-6151 or email me at john.waller@dinsmore.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.