Probate: What if the Real Estate is Worth Less than the Mortgage?

These days, estates are often walking away from real property rather than paying the mortage.  They do this because lenders usually foreclose on real property nonjudically.  No deficiency is allowed to a lender after a nonjudicial foreclosure.  See RCW 61.24.100.  (On a semi-related note, this can leave “forgiveness of debt,” which is taxed as income to the estate).  In other words, the estate walks away from the property and the debt.  This is a great outcome for the estate, but not a guaranteed outcome because a savvy lender can file a creditor’s claim and simply enforce its rights under the promissory note (that is, assuming the lender knows about the estate – notice anyone?).

Here are the rules: There are known (or “reasonably ascertainable”) creditors and unknown creditors.  RCW 11.40.040.  A mortgage lender is most certainly a “known” creditor.  If an Executor fails to notify a known creditor – the creditor will have 2 years from the date of death to sue the decedent’s estate (or rather, the Executor/Personal Representative).  See RCW 11.40.051(1)(c).  If you notify a known creditor, he has the later of four months or thirty days from when notice was published.  (If the notice to creditors is published, unknown creditors have four months.)

So, a PR can: 1. pay the debt; or 2. not pay the debt; and A. send notice to the lender; or B. not send notice to the lender.  If notice is sent, the statute of limitations for a creditor’s claim is the later of four months from publication or thirty days from sending the notice. RCW 11.40.051.  If not, it is two years.

If the PR stops paying, the lender will issue a notice of default, and eventually start a foreclosure (it could take months, even a year or more depending on the lender).  If the lender is on the ball (or if you send notice to the lender and he reads it and responds), he will likely file a creditor’s claim.  Since lenders have the option of suing on the note or foreclosing, the savvy lender will rest on his creditor’s claim rather than foreclose, knowing he can get paid in full that way.

The conclusion is this:  If you’re the lender and your borrower stops paying, search the Washington Courts Case Name Search index to see if there’s an open estate.  If so, file a creditor’s claim.  If you’re the Executor/Personal Representative, stop paying the mortgage, and see what happens.