Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2010 and was republished with updated information in October 2018.
If you provided labor, materials, equipment, professional services or just about anything else to a construction project, you may be entitled to file a mechanics lien against the property to secure payment for your services.
So, how to file a mechanics lien? The devil is always in the details, and mechanics lien laws in the United States require an extraordinary amount of detail. To make matters more complex, the requirements for filing a lien differ depending on the project’s location. That is, each state’s mechanics lien laws are different, and the process, timelines, and requirements will vary from state to state.
Below, we’ll provide you with an overview of how to file a mechanics lien that is generalized for any state, and we’ll direct you to resources that explain the different requirements that apply in each state.
Mechanics liens can go by many names. This legal document is sometimes called a “mechanic’s lien,” a “construction lien,” a “laborer lien,” or an “artisan’s lien” (when referring to a lien filed by an architect, engineer, or other “artisan.”)
On private construction projects, the mechanics lien attaches to the land itself, and restricts the owner from selling, refinancing or transferring the property without accommodating the lien. Mechanics liens are generally not available on public (federal, state/county, or municipal) construction projects. Instead, the tool available on public projects to rectify payment issues is generally to submit a payment bond claim.
Learn more about liens:
Before Filing a Lien, Consider Sending a Notice of Intent to Lien
Filing a mechanics lien is a serious step for everyone involved. A lien filing has the power to disrupt a construction project, and in some cases, bring it to a halt. For this reason, filing a lien should be considered a last resort.
Before filing a mechanics lien, consider sending a Notice of Intent to Lien. A notice of intent to lien is a lot like a demand letter, except that it’s a demand letter that actually works. It is a document sent to certain parties on a construction project warning that if payment isn’t made, the claimant intends to file a mechanics lien.
Whereas a mechanics lien will interfere with the property record and debts, an NOI is only a letter. It is usually not recorded with any official government office. That being said, a Notice of Intent will usually get the message across enough to resolve your payment dispute. In fact, Notices of Intent to Lien are some of the most often sent documents by zlien‘s customers, simply because they really do work.
How to File a Mechanics Lien
If all of your efforts to get paid have been ineffective or otherwise ignored, then it may be time to consider filing a mechanics lien. As we’ve said above, filing a mechanics lien is a serious, legal step — one that should not be taken lightly! But a lien remains one of the most effective tools available to the construction industry, and sometimes, you’ve got to bring out the big guns!
Here is a step-by-step process describing how to file a mechanics lien that has been generalized to be applicable to any state. For specific questions about how liens, notices, and other aspects of construction payment work in your particular state, please consult the resources section of the zlien website.
Step 1 – Determine if You Have Lien Rights
Below we’ll provide a description for each of the five steps.
Step 1: Do You Have the Right to File a Lien?
The first step to filing a mechanics lien is to determine whether you have the right to file the lien. This typically involves asking yourself these three questions:
1. Does state law allow you to file a lien? Each state allows some types of construction participants to file liens and prohibits others from doing the same. For example, many states prohibit suppliers to suppliers from filing mechanics liens. Typically, prime contractors, subcontractors, and material suppliers are given lien rights. If you’re unsure as to whether you have a lien right, a smart first step is to consult zlien‘s construction payment resources.
2. Was preliminary notice required, and if so, did you give notice? If you were required to send preliminary notice, and you didn’t, you may have forfeited your lien rights. Note: Read this post for state-by-state preliminary notice requirements.
3. Are you within your lien deadline? Every state sets forth a timeline to file a lien. This timeline is usually tied to the completion of the project, or the last day you provide labor or materials. Note: Lien and notice deadlines available in this post.
If you have the right to file a lien, the next step is to produce the lien document. Lien laws are quirky. You must be careful and include every piece of information required by the statute.
One of the most frequent mistakes lien claimants make in preparing a lien is failing to properly identify the property. Most states require a legal property description, as opposed to a simple address.
Many counties also have strict font, margin, and paper size requirements. Failure to follow these standards may cost you additional filing fees, or result in having your lien rejected. It’s a good idea to consult the county recorder’s office ahead of time to learn any special filing requirements they may have.
Tip: to locate the proper recording office, search the following in Google: “[county name] + recorder’s office.” For example:
Dallas county recorder’s office or Dallas county clerk’s office
Most states’ lien statutes describe how to file a mechanics lien, such as what you should include in the mechanics lien and how you should format it.
Always consult the recording office before filing your lien. Each office has unique requirements and procedures. It’s not uncommon for a lien to be rejected by the county recorder several times before the claimant gets it right, for any of the following reasons and more:
- The document is formatted improperly
- Payment for the filing fee is insufficient
- Minor typos
- Specific content is missing
It’s very important to file your mechanics lien with the correct recording office. (See step 2 above to locate the proper recording office.) Typically, each county has its own recording office, and you’ll need to record the lien in the same county where the property that you worked on is located.
Mailing your lien to the recording office:
Note that some recording offices require you to file and/or serve the lien in person. Usually, if you are unable to do this yourself (because you are out of state, for example), you can send the lien to a courier who will record the lien for you.
If you are mailing your lien to a courier or to the recording office, be aware of mailing delays (due to weather, for example), that might cause you to miss your lien deadline. Also take note of warnings from counties that liens they receive in the mail can take days or weeks to process. (We reported a 6 week backlog in Los Angeles County in 2008!)
Is this process starting to sound difficult?
After you file the lien, make sure you notify (or serve) the appropriate parties. In most states, the lien claimant must send immediate notice to the property owner. Other states require that you also serve the prime contractor and construction lender (if there is a lender involved with the project).
Note also that some states require claimant’s to sign an affidavit of service, which swears that you did, in fact, give notice to the required parties.
Don’t let your lien expire! Your mechanics lien is only enforceable for a finite period of time, which differs state-to-state. A handful of states allow lien claimants to extend this period of time, though sometimes this requires permission from the property owner.
If your deadline to enforce your lien is approaching, you’ll want to take measures to extend the deadline, or to file suit to enforce the lien, which usually requires help from an attorney. If you’ve been paid, you will likely need to release (or cancel) the lien. (Not all states require claimant’s to cancel the lien, but property owners will usually ask for this after the lien claimant has been paid). To cancel the lien, file a Lien Release (or Lien Cancellation) with the same office that recorded the lien.
More Mechanics Lien Resources
On the zlien website, you’ll find many resources that will help you get paid. Here are links to a few of our best:
Free Forms and Templates – downloadable forms available for every state
Construction Legal Center – submit a legal question and have it answered by a licensed zlien attorney
Document Navigator – ready to file a lien or send a notice? Follow this link to use zlien’s pay-by-the-document service
- Consult zlien‘s free lien law resources to learn your specific lien and notice requirements. Make sure that you are eligible to file a lien.
- Consult the county recorder’s office in the county where the property is located. Ask about special rules that dictate the procedure for filing a lien, or what must be included with/on the lien.
- Draft the lien according to state laws and county requirements.
- File the lien with the recorder’s office.
- Monitor your deadline to enforce the lien. If you’re paid, file a lien release with the recording office to cancel the lien. If your deadline is approaching and you haven’t been paid, either extend the lien (if this is allowed) or meet with an attorney to file an action to enforce the lien.
Talk to Us
If you’re having trouble getting paid on a project, we might be able to help. Let’s talk about getting you paid.