New Jersey is a "race-notice" jurisdiction when it comes to mortgage priority. What this means, in its simplest terms, is that if Party A obtains a mortgage on a piece of property before Party B does, but Party B records its mortgage first (i.e., it wins the "race" to the clerk's office), then Party B's mortgage has priority unless Party B had "actual knowledge" of Party A's previously-acquired interest. But what happens when a first mortgage is refinanced? The original mortgage is technically paid off and replaced with the refinanced mortgage. Does this "newly-recorded," refinanced mortgage maintain the first priority status of the original mortgage or does it go to the back of the line? The answer to this question — as discussed in a recent decision from the Law Division, Wells Fargo Bank, NA v. Kim — is that the refinanced mortgage generally takes the original mortgage's first priority position.
In Kim, defendant borrowed $328,000 from Washington Mutual Bank, FA ("WaMu") to buy a home and secured repayment of this loan with a purchase money mortgage on the home. Later, defendant obtained a home equity loan from Plaintiff, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. ("Wells Fargo") that was also secured by a mortgage on defendant's home. Defendant then refinanced her original, purchase money mortgage with WaMu. Defendant used the entire amount of the refinance loan, which was secured by a mortgage on defendant's home, to pay off the original purchase money mortgage (i.e., she did not borrow and more money through the refinance) and the purchase money mortgage was discharged of record. WaMu did not obtain a subordination of the Wells Fargo mortgage in connection with the refinance.
Approximately three years after the refinancing, defendant defaulted on the Wells Fargo home equity loan, and Wells Fargo moved to foreclose. Defendant did not file a contesting answer and the court entered default against her. However, U.S. Bank Trust, N.A. ("U.S. Bank"), the successor to WaMu's interest in the refinance loan and mortgage, filed a contesting answer claiming that its mortgage stood in first priority position ahead of Wells Fargo's mortgage.