Your hard work and determination finally paid off. You won the case you filed in an Iowa small claims court! The judge agreed with you, and the defendant's been ordered to pay you or to turn over some property that's rightfully yours. You're to be congratulated.
However, just because you won doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get paid. If you're lucky, the defendant will voluntarily pay you the amount listed in the judgment. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen in every case. Often, the defendant tries to avoid paying all or part of the judgment. You have some options when this happens, however, such as:
- Getting a writ of execution
- Garnishing the defendant's wages and bank account
- Possibly having the defendant's driver's license suspended
- Having a lien placed against the defendant's real property
The Names Have Changed
When the suit was filed in the small claims court, you were called the "plaintiff," the person who filed the suit, and the person you sued was called the "defendant." Now that the case is over and you've won, you're now known as the judgment creditor and the defendant is called the judgment debtor.
After the judge decides the case and the clerk enters the judgment in the court records, the first thing you should do is talk to the defendant-debtor. See if he can pay you immediately, or try to arrange a payment schedule. Sometimes, the judgment will specify a payment plan or "installment payments" for the debtor. If he doesn't pay you voluntarily, or if he never makes an installment payment or stops making them, then there are a few ways that the court can help you collect on the judgment:
Writ of Execution
Also known as "executing judgment," this is when you take (or "levy") some of the debtor's property or assets to pay what he owes. You need file an application for this writ and you have to be able to specify what you want levied and where it's located. This process can be complicated, but generally, once you've been granted a writ:
- You have to arrange for it to be delivered to or "served on" the defendant, which usually must be done by the sheriff of the county where the property is located. You have to be able to tell the sheriff where the property or assets can be found
- After it's been served, the sheriff may take the items that you've identified
- Unless the defendant files a "claim of exemption" (meaning that the property or asset can't be taken because it's protected by law), the sheriff will sell the property and arrange for the sale proceeds to be paid to you
With a Writ of Execution, you can usually get to various kinds of the defendant-debtor's, assets, including personal property, like cars, boats, and jewelry; and certain real estate, like rental or vacation property. Exempt property that can't be reached through the Writ includes the defendant-debtor's homestead real estate (or his house), wedding rings and burial plots. The sheriff or court clerk can give you a list of exempt property, and they can tell you the fees you need to pay to get a Writ of Execution.
This writ may also be used to:
- Request that the sheriff personally make a demand on the defendant that he pay you, or give you the personal property that you were awarded in the judgment
- Have the sheriff take the personal property that he was ordered to turn over to you
If the court ordered installment payments and the defendant never paid you or stopped paying you, you have to file an "Affidavit of Default" specifying the amount still owed by the defendant before you can get a Writ of Execution.
Wage Bank Account Garnishment
This is when you arrange for money to be taken directly out of the debtor's paycheck or bank account and paid to you. To do this, you have to get an application for a writ from the court clerk. When you file it, you'll need to know the name and addresses of the defendant-debtor's employer and/or bank. Again, you're responsible for making sure that the writ is served on the defendant, his employer and his bank. When it's served:
- The employer or bank will let the court know if they have money belonging to the defendant-debtor that can be garnished, that is, money that's not "exempt" or protected from garnishment
- If the bank has money that may be garnished, it will send it to the court
- The employer will withhold part of the defendant-debtor's weekly pay, but usually no more than 25% of his weekly net pay, and pay it to the court
- The court clerk will give you instructions on how to collect the money
Exempt money that can't be reached through the writ includes funds from child support, alimony and money from public assistance programs, such as worker's compensation, unemployment and Social Security benefits.
If your small claims case was about an automobile accident and you can't get any money from the defendant either voluntarily or through execution and garnishment, then you may have the defendant's driver's license suspended. You need to file a special form with the court clerk, who will then inform the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) about the defendant's fault or "liability" for the accident. The DOT will suspend the defendant's license until he pays the judgment in full. The court clerk or DOT can get you the forms you need to do this.
Lien on Real Property
This will prevent the debtor from selling his real property, including his home, without having to pay you. In Iowa, once you have a judgment against the defendant, you automatically have a lien against all of his real estate that's located in the county where the small claims suit was decided. If the defendant has land in other counties, you can get a lien against that property by filing or "recording" a copy of the judgment in the County Recorder's office for the county where the land is located. The court clerk or county recorder can help with this process and tell you about the fees involved.
It's your responsibility to get information about where the defendant works and where his property and bank accounts are located. Without it you can't ask the court for an order of seizure or garnishment, and you can't get a lien on his out-of-county real estate. If you don't know this information, you can request a "Judgment Debtor Examination." To do this, you need to:
- Get a Writ of Execution from the court clerk and fill out a "Dictation to Sheriff" form, which asks the sheriff to demand payment from the defendant-debtor
- If the sheriff is unsuccessful, you need to ask the court clerk to send the defendant a written notice demanding that he come to the courthouse and answer your questions, under oath, about what property and assets he owns and where it's located, where he works, etc.
Satisfaction of Judgment
Once the defendant-debtor has paid the judgment in full, you have to file a "Satisfaction of Judgment" form with the district court clerk. The clerk can get you the form you need.
If all of this sounds difficult, time-consuming and a bit expensive, that's because it is. Collecting on the judgment very well may be the hardest thing about your small claims case. That's why many successful small claims litigants ask an experienced attorney for help in getting a judgment debtor to pay.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How much will you charge to help me collect on a judgment?
- Not long after the small claims court entered a judgment in my favor, the defendant moved and now I can't find him. What can I do?
- Is there anything I can do if a debtor sells his house before I can get my lien recorded?