An equitable assignment is one that does not fulfill the statutory criteria for a legal assignment, but is binding and upheld by the courts in the interest of equability, justice, and fairness.

Equitable Assignment

An equitable assignment may not appear to be self-evident by the law's standard, but it presents the assignee with a title that is protected and recognized in equity. It's based on the essence of a declaration of trust; specifically, essential fairness and natural justice. As long as there is valuable consideration involved, it does not matter if a formal agreement is signed. There needs to be some sort of intent displayed from one party to assign and the other party to receive.

The evaluation of a righteous equitable assignment is completed by determining if a debtor would rationally pay the debt to another party alleging to be the assignee. Equitable assignments can be created by:

  1. The assignor informing the assignee that they transferred a right to them
  2. The assignor instructing the other party to release their obligation from the assignee and place it instead on the assignor

The only part of an agreement that can be assigned is the benefit. Generally speaking, there is no prerequisite for the written notice to be received or given. The significant characteristic that separates an equitable assignment from a legal assignment is that most of the time, an equitable assignee may not take action against a third party. Instead, it must rely on the guidelines governing equitable assignments. In other words, the equitable assignee must team up with the assignor to take action.

The Doctrine of Equitable Assignment in Wisconsin

In Dow Family LLC v. PHH Mortgage Corp., the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued in favor of the doctrine of equitable assignment. The case was similar to many other foreclosure cases, except this one came with a twist. Essentially, Dow Family LLC purchased a property and the property owner insisted the mortgage on the property had been paid off. However, in actuality, it wasn't. 

Prior to the sale, the mortgage on the property was with PHH Mortgage Corp. When PHH went to foreclose on the mortgage, Dow Family LLC contested it. There was one specific rebuttal that caught the attention of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The official mortgage on record was with MERS, an appointee for the original lender, U.S. Bank.

Dow argued that PHH couldn't foreclose on the property because the true owner was MERS. Essentially, Dow was stating that the mortgage was never assigned to PHH. Based on this argument, PHH utilized the doctrine of equitable assignment.

Based on a case from 1859, Croft v. Bunster, the court determined that the security for a note is equitably assigned when the note is assigned without a need for an independent, written assignment. Additionally, Dow contended that the statute of frauds prohibits the utilization of the doctrine, mainly because it claimed every assignment on a property must be formally recorded.

During the case, Dow argued that the MERS system, which stored the data regarding the mortgage, was fundamentally flawed. According to the court, the statute of frauds was satisfied because the equitable assignment was in accordance with the operation of law. Most importantly, the court avoided all consideration regarding the MERS system, concluding it was not significant in their decision. 

The outcome was a major win for lenders, as they were relying on the doctrine specifically for these types of circumstances.

Most experts agree that this outcome makes sense in the current mortgage-lending environment. This is due to the fact that it is still quite common for mortgages to be bundled up into mortgage-backed securities and sold on the secondary market.

Many economists claim that by not requiring mortgages to be recorded each time a transfer is completed, the loans are more easily marketed to investors. Additionally, debtors know who their current mortgage company is because the new lender must always notify the current borrower in order to receive payment. It was determined that recording and documenting the mortgage merely provides a signal to the rest of the world that the property owner secures a debt.

If you need help with an equitable assignment, you can post your job on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.