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Promissory Notes, Mortgage Assignments, and MERS’ Role in Real Estate
Homebuying & Selling Tips Real Estate Tips

Promissory Notes, Mortgage Assignments, and MERS’ Role in Real Estate

Amanda Farrell

After the fall out of the subprime mortgage crisis that triggered the Great Recession, the effects still linger when looking at homeownership statistics in the United States. Nearly 10 million homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure between 2006 and 2014. Damaged credit and traumatized psyches paired with stricter lending standards and soaring median home prices mean that some former homeowners will never own another home.

Today, the United States is seeing the highest rates of unemployment since the Great Depression at nearly 15%  due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and of those who still own a home, nearly 4.1 million borrowers are struggling to make their monthly payments. Many are turning to forbearance for momentary relief from their mortgages.

For many homeowners, the question of what happens to their mortgage after closing day might not ever come up. Until the threat of foreclosure or the need for forbearance arises, most borrowers simply send in their monthly payments with no questions asked.

Now is a good time to consider the process after closing, and how it affects their property rights. Here are some of the questions to ask.

 

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What happens after a real estate closing?

  1. At closing, the borrower signs the mortgage, the deed, and the promissory note
  2. The mortgage and the deed are recorded in the public record
  3. The promissory note is held by the lender while the loan is outstanding
  4. Payments are sent to the mortgage servicing company
  5. The mortgage may be securitized and sold to investors
  6. The mortgage may be transferred to another bank
  7. The mortgage servicing rights may change to another company
  8. When the mortgage is paid in full, a mortgage lien release or satisfaction with a number referencing the original mortgage loan is recorded in the public record to show the debt is no longer outstanding
  9. The promissory note is marked as paid in full and returned to the borrower

 

Banks often sell and buy mortgages from each other as a way to liquidate assets and improve their credit ratings. When the original lender sells the debt to another bank or an investor, a mortgage assignment is created and recorded in the public record and the promissory note is endorsed.

What are Loan Transfer Documents?

Assignments and endorsements prove who owns the debt and subsequently who has the authority to bring foreclosure action.

Mortgage Assignments

A Mortgage Assignment is a document showing a mortgage loan has been transferred from the originator to a third party.

Note Endorsements

In addition to the assignment, the originator of the loan or the most recent holder of the loan must endorse (or sign over) the promissory note whenever the loan changes hands. Sometimes, the note is endorsed “in blank,” which means that any party that possesses the note has the legal authority to enforce it.

While these documents are supposed to be recorded in the public land records systems, sometimes there’s a “break” in the chain. A missing mortgage satisfaction or assignment can cause a huge headache for homeowners when they go to sell. Without knowing who the official mortgage lienholder of the property is, the home can’t be sold. The title agent in charge of the closing is tasked with fixing the issue so that clear ownership rights can be established and the final mortgage payoff can be sent to the right lender if needed.

What is Mortgage Securitization?

In the last 30 years or so, the buying and selling of mortgage loans between lenders, banks, and investors has grown more complicated. When a mortgage is turned into a security, it’s pooled with similar types of loans and sold on the secondary mortgage market. The purchasers or investors in these securities receive interest in principal payments.

Securitization is good for lenders because it allows them to sell mortgage loans from their books and use that money to make more loans.

Where securitization goes wrong, as we saw during the housing crisis, is when bad or “toxic” assets are pooled together and sold on the secondary market to unsuspecting investors. Subprime mortgage-backed securities had received high ratings from credit agencies and offered a higher interest rate, but they also were the first to hemorrhage losses when borrowers began defaulting on homes with underwater mortgages.

Securitization isn’t an inherently good or bad process, it’s simply a mechanism by which banks liquidize assets, increase their credit and ratings, and clear their balance sheets.

For homeowners, securitization means that the mortgage isn’t owned by a single lender and is instead part of a pool of mortgages owned by investors. A mortgage service company is responsible for collecting the mortgage payments and sending it to the proper investors. Securitization also means that tracking the note and who has the authority to enforce it can get messy.

What is the Mortgage Electronic Registration System, Inc. or MERS?

The MERS system is a private, third-party database system used to track servicing rights and ownership of mortgages in the United States. This system of registering the promissory note and mortgage was created to make transferring these documents easier on the secondary mortgage market.

How does MERS work?

For some real estate transactions, the mortgage originator will designate MERS as the mortgagee at closing. These loans are called MERS as Original Mortgagee (MOM) loans. When buying a home, a borrower should see clear language on the mortgage or deed of trust document granting and conveying legal title of the mortgage to MERS as mortgagee. This gives the company the right to act on behalf of the current and subsequent owners of the loan.

In other transactions, the loan may be assigned to MERS in the public record at a later date after closing.

After MERS is designated as a nominee to act on behalf of the lender, it tracks the transfers of the loans between parties and acts as a nominee for each holder. This eliminates the need to file separate assignments in the public record each time the loan is transferred. If a lender sells the loan, MERS will update this information in their system.

Even though MERS is designated as the mortgagee, it doesn’t own the debt or hold the promissory note. MERS doesn’t service mortgages or collect payments on mortgages.

Benefits of MERS

Some of the benefits of the MERS system include:

  • No document drafting fees
  • Eliminates the need for multiple assignments each time the loan changes hands
  • Reduces recording costs
  • Saves time and administrative costs for lenders and servicers
  • Provides the identification of servicers and investors for free for homeowners and lenders
  • Used by Lenders to find undisclosed liens
  • Used by municipalities to find companies responsible for maintaining vacant and abandoned properties
  • Mortgage Identification Numbers (MIN) are assigned to each loan for easy tracking
  • Selling of loans and servicing transfers are more efficient in the secondary market
  • Obtaining lien releases when a lender goes out of business is simplified
  • Cost savings by the mortgage industry is theoretically passed on to homeowners

 

Does MERS really save consumers money?

The MERS system is not meant to act as a replacement for public land records. However, some states, including Kentucky, New York, Texas, Alabama, and Delaware have sued the company that controls MERS for lost revenue from missing record filing fees. In the case of Kentucky, the state alleged that MERS did not record mortgage assignments with Kentucky County Clerks as they were transferred between banks. At $12 a recording, all those transfers without corresponding mortgage assignments add up to big bucks.

Despite numerous lawsuits challenging MERS over its mortgage assignment authority, the company that controls MERS usually receives favorable judgments. In 2016, courts in Texas ruled that MERS’ mortgage assignments were valid and dismissed two cases. County recorders in Pennsylvania also brought cases claiming that MERS and MERS System members failed to record mortgage assignments when transferring promissory notes, a violation of Pennsylvania recording laws. MERS emerged as the winner of these lawsuits as well.

Kentucky and other states argue that skipping out on these fees hurt the consumers and taxpayers in their states.

What is MERS role in foreclosures?

Depending on the state, a foreclosure process might be either judicial (reviewed by a judge in court) or nonjudicial. In the past, MERS, acting on behalf of lenders, has been named as the plaintiff in foreclosure proceedings. Sometimes MERS was even listed as the beneficiary in nonjudicial notices.

Whether or not MERS has the authority to file foreclosure as either the plaintiff or beneficiary is hotly contested. Some states have ruled that MERS doesn’t have standing to foreclose since it doesn’t have any financial interest in either the property of the promissory note.

MERS Splits the note and the mortgage

A court case from 1872, Carpenter v. Longan, established that where the promissory note goes, a deed of trust or mortgage must follow and, according to the United State’s Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), the promissory note must also have a clear chain of title.

Foreclosure proceedings during the Great Recession proved to be complicated by the MERS system. Within the MERS system, a note and mortgage may be transferred multiple times, so to avoid an endorsement each time, the note is “endorsed in blank.” In one foreclosure after the other, borrowers were able to demonstrate that the subsequent assignments of the promissory note had gone unendorsed.

Although the MERS systems has helped the mortgage industry, title agents, and even borrowers better manage and understand who has the servicing rights and holds the authority to foreclose, several borrowers facing foreclosure have argued that the system impermissibly “splits” the note and the mortgage between the note holder and MERS as the beneficiary of the deed of trust or mortgage.

This process of bifurcation, it’s claimed, causes the relationship between the mortgage and note to become defective and subsequently unenforceable.

Homeowners facing foreclosure, especially in the aftermath of the housing bubble burst of 2008, were successful in delaying or avoiding foreclosure by arguing that the authority to foreclose was not satisfactorily established due to breaks in the chain of assignments and endorsements.

However, Article 3 of the UCC establishes anyone who possesses the note has the legal authority to enforce it. So foreclosing parties have countered that possession of the note should be enough.

As a result, some states, like Michigan, have ruled in favor of these borrower’s arguments by requiring reunification through valid assignment before foreclosures may proceed. Others have ruled that reunification is not necessary since MERS would be authorized to foreclose for the note holder on their behalf. In 2015, The Nevada Supreme Court actually clarified previous rulings by stating that the involvement of MERS actually cures the defect. This is because the note holder could potentially or theoretically direct or compel MERS to assign the deed of trust, resulting in reunifying the instruments.

Homebuyers should always ask questions

With the advent of eClosing solutions, eNotes, eVaults, and the MERS eRegistry, the real estate, title, and mortgage industry continues to build systems that improve the homebuying experience.

Despite all the advancements, homebuying can be a confusing and overwhelming process. It’s important to ask questions of the right real estate professionals. Hiring your own attorney to represent your interests in the real estate transaction is always a good idea.

While the pros and cons of MERS is debated, homeowners today will want to keep up with recommendations from the CFPB should they fall behind on their mortgage payments and reach out to their mortgage servicer as soon as possible.

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Amanda Farrell Content Marketing Strategist

Amanda Farrell is a digital media strategist at PropLogix. She enjoys being a part of a team that gives peace of mind for consumers while making one of the biggest purchases of their lives. She lives in Sarasota with her bunny, Buster, and enjoys painting, playing guitar and mandolin, and yoga.