Tennessee mechanics’ liens: the basics

Those providing construction-related goods and services should understand their lien rights under Tennessee law.

Unless you are an experienced contractor, chances are good that you either are unaware of, or just don't understand, the concept of mechanics' liens. Simply put, mechanics' liens are a legal tool developed to allow contractors and material suppliers to seek payment for goods and services provided as part of a construction project. Once a lien is filed by a subcontractor or supplier and notice of it is given to a general contractor (known as "prime contractors" in Tennessee law) or property owner, that person or entity is considered to be legally aware that a debt is owed for services rendered or goods provided, and that the subcontractor or supplier intends to collect it.

That being said, the provisions in Tennessee law dealing with mechanics' liens are exacting, and the procedures set out in the statutes (see Title 66, Chapter 11 of the Tennessee Code) must be precisely followed in order for a lien to be enforceable. Someone seeking a lien must:

  • Give notice in accordance with the lien statute to the general contractor or property owner;
  • File all relevant paperwork within the time constraints set forth in the statute, including giving notice within 90 days of the last day he/she worked on the project and filing suit to enforce the lien within the statutory deadline;
  • Have worked on a commercial project or on a residential one where he/she dealt directly with the owner;
  • Ensure that no extraneous fees have been added (attorney fees, late fees, interest charges, etc.) to the costs sought in the lien; it may be possible to recoup these costs, but they shouldn't be included in the lien itself.

An important difference

There are several key differences between general/prime contractors and subcontractors where liens are concerned. For example, general contractors have no legal obligation to give notice to the property owner or manager in order to preserve their lien rights. The notice provisions in the law are technically applicable only to subcontractors and material suppliers. This is not to say that it isn't a wise practice to give notice, particularly when there are several potential lien claimants, priority of payment might be an issue, or when ownership of the property may change.

Regardless of whether they provide legal notice or not, though, the same time provisions - including the 90-day-limit to bring a claim following the last day of work on the project and the deadline to file a suit to enforce the lien - still apply to prime contractors.

Finding help to understand this technical area

Clearly, the above content isn't inclusive of the requirements and technicalities involved in Tennessee lien law. If you are a contractor - general or sub - wishing to pursue a lien to secure payment for your hard work, it is helpful to have someone on your side who understands the idiosyncrasies and is aware of key filing deadlines and notice provisions. For more information, speak with a qualified construction law attorney in your area.

Keywords: lien, mechanics' lien, material suppliers' liens