A lien is a legal claim against a debtor's property intended to secure payment of a debt. If the debtor doesn't pay, the creditor gets the property.
In many cases the creditor will file a record of the lien with the relevant court or county clerk. This puts other potential creditors on notice and establishes the filer's priority to get the property if the creditor doesn't pay up in time.
Common types of liens include tax liens (if the taxpayer hasn't paid up), mechanics' liens (if a worker hasn't been paid for making or fixing property), UCC filings (for property secured under the Uniform Commercial Code) and lis pendens (indicating that the property is the subject of litigation).
Lien Laws: In the U.S. there are some Federal lien laws, most notably for tax liens (see "Tax Liens"), but others Federal liens are related to environmental laws, ERISA, etc. These are generally statutory and found in the United States Code (see "United States Code").
Most other U.S. liens are governed by state law. You can usually find a detailed review of a state's lien laws in the "Liens" entry of the state's legal encyclopedia.
Also, there are many state-specific lien law treatises. You can find them by looking in the "Property" section for the relevant state in Searching the Law: The States by Francis R. Doyle (last published in 2003) or by searching the online catalogs of law schools located in the state. To find links to law school catalogs, see "Libraries." For more ways to find state-specific treatises, see "Legal Treatises."
Finally, lien laws are covered in some subject-specific treatises. For example, the A State-By-State Guide to Construction & Design Law: Current Statutes and Practice includes each state's laws governing mechanics' liens, materialmen liens and other construction-related liens.
Locating Liens: You can find many liens by searching online databases, as discussed below. You can find other liens only by checking with the relevant court or county clerk. Sometimes you can call in. Otherwise, you either have to go to the clerk's office and do the search yourself or hire a search service to go for you (see "Document Retrieval Services.")
In some states, you have to contact the relevant motor vehicle administration to find liens on motor vehicles.
Online Lien Searches:Some jurisdictions have their own systems, such as Maryland's Judiciary Case Search, which has a "Judgments and Liens" section. There may be separate databases for UCC filings (e.g., Maryland's UCC Record Search) and liens on motor vehicles.
There are also lien searches available through commercial vendors such as Accurint, KnowX.com, Lexis and/or CTAdvantage, as well as many stand-alone services (e.g. TaxLiens.com). Check to make sure your jurisdiction is included in the database and current before you search.
Lexis offers databases for searching tax liens, UCC filings and judicial judgments for most states. The Lexis Motor Vehicle Registration databases includes the name of any known lienholder for the vehicle in question.
The subscription-based CTAdvantage has a database of UCC filings. In addition, you can get images of the filing online.
Tax Liens: More specific information on searching for tax liens and UCC filings is available in the "Tax Liens" and "Uniform Commercial Code" entries.