Don't think the small claims process is over just because you filed a claim, went to trial and won a court judgment. The court can't collect your money judgment for you so you may need to take action and spend money to enforce the judgment. The collection process can be time consuming and there is no guarantee that the debtor will pay you the amount owed.
After judgment is entered, the plaintiff becomes the judgment creditor and the defendant becomes the judgment debtor. Judgments are valid for at least six years. Remember that a judgment might be collectable in a few years, even if it can't be collected now.
A judgment is a money award ordered by a judge as part of a small claims case. The judgment doesn't provide for collection of the money owed but authorizes the winner to use legal means to enforce and collect the award from the debtor.
Debtor May Stay the Proceedings
If you lost, you can ask the magistrate to "stay" the proceedings to allow you to appeal. That means the winner can't try to collect the judgment.
Enforcing a Judgment
If the losing party doesn't voluntarily pay or agree to pay the judgment awarded and hasn't filed an appeal, the party winning the lawsuit will have to start collection procedures. The steps to collect your judgment are:
- Ask, preferably in writing, the judgment debtor to pay
- Have interrogatories served
- File a writ of garnishment or place a lien against real estate owned by debtor
Ask Debtor to Pay Judgment
The first step is to ask the debtor to pay. If he or she pays, then you need to file a Creditor's Satisfaction of Judgment form, so the court knows the case is over.
If the debtor doesn't pay, ask the magistrate to order the debtor to answer "interrogatories." Interrogatories are questions designed to help identify property the debtor owns that could help you get payment. This includes things like wages, bank accounts, a house, a car or something else of value.
If the debtor fails to answer the interrogatories, the magistrate can issue a bench warrant. That means the debtor can placed in jail until he or she answers the questions. The debtor must file the answers with the court and mail a copy to the sender no later than 10 days after the debtor received them.
After receipt of the interrogatories, the creditor may file a writ of garnishment or may request to place a lien against real estate owned by the debtor.
Writ of Garnishment
If the creditor decides to file a writ of garnishment, the creditor must determine the appropriate writ of garnishment to have the court issue based on the information obtained from the interrogatories:
- Garnishment of wages
- Garnishment of bank or savings institution
- Garnishment of debtor when debtor is a business entity
Lien against Real Estate
The following are the steps to requesting a lien against real estate:
- Ask the court for a transcript of judgment, which costs $25.00
- Take the transcript to the county clerk and recorder where the judgment debtor owns the real estate
- Advise the judgment debtor that he or she won't be able to sell or mortgage the real estate until the judgment amount has been paid and you release the judgment lien
A certain amount of wages are protected against collection. Also, the house in which a debtor lives and a car needed to go back and forth to work are protected against collection of a judgment.
Satisfaction of Judgment and Release of Lien
After you collect the judgment, complete a Satisfaction of Judgment form and file it with the court. Mail a copy to the judgment debtor. If you placed a lien on the real estate owned by the judgment debtor, notify the clerk and recorder to release the lien.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can an attorney help me collect a judgment?
- How can I locate a debtor?
- Will the clerk of court help me to collect a judgment?