A legal mortgage is one that fulfills all legal requirements for a mortgage, while an equitable mortgage does not fulfill these requirements but still operates as a mortgage. Those with specific mortgage questions should consult an attorney.
A legal mortgage occurs when the owner gives legal title of property to a creditor to secure payment of the owner's debt. In a typical mortgage, once the debtor pays off the debt, legal title to the property will revert to the original owner.
Courts of equity evolved to redress injustices caused by legal courts' strict adherence to the law. Courts of equity thus recognize "equitable" mortgages, which occur when a transaction does not fulfill all legal requirements of a mortgage, but still looks and operates like a mortgage; in other words, property is offered to a creditor to secure debt.
Equitable mortgages generally operate like legal mortgages, but in case of default, the legal mortgage debt on a property receives satisfaction before that of any equitable mortgage. The equitable mortgage holder's rights to the property also dissolve if a third party that does not know of the equitable mortgage buys the property.