Your hard work and determination finally paid off. The judge of a Maine small claims court agreed with you and found that the person you sued owes you money or has some property that rightfully belongs to you. You won! Congratulations.
However, just because you won doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get paid or get your property back. If you're lucky, the other party will follow the judge's decision and voluntarily pay you or turn over the property to you. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen in every case. If it happens to you, you have some options, such as:
- Collecting through a disclosure hearing
- Getting a writ of execution against some of his real and personal property
- Getting a writ of replevin to have certain personal property returned to you
- Having a lien placed against his 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 into the court records, the first thing you should do is talk to the defendant-debtor. See if she can pay you immediately, or try to arrange a payment schedule or a time when you can get your property. If the defendant doesn't pay you or turn over the property, there are a few ways that the court can help you collect on the judgment.
This is the most common way to collect on a judgment from a Maine small claims court. You can start this process if the defendant doesn't pay you or return your property within 30 days after the judgment. Generally, it works like this:
- Get a Notice of Disclosure Hearing form from the clerk of the district court that decided the small claim case, and complete the form using information shown on the judgment form you got from the small claims court
- Arrange to have a copy of the Notice delivered to or "served on" the defendant-debtor. The court clerk can explain your options here, but generally you can mail it, have the clerk arrange for service, or have the local sheriff deliver it. You have to pay postage costs, and the clerk and sheriff will charge additional fees
- After it's served, you need to file the original Notice with the court clerk and pay a $15 fee for each defendant-debtor named in the Notice. You need to file it within 20 days after it's served. You also need to file the "proof of service," which must be either an "acknowledgment" form signed by the defendant; the return receipt if it was mailed it registered mail; or the proof of service signed by the sheriff
- A hearing will then be scheduled by the court clerk. The defendant-debtor will be required to appear in court and answer your questions, under oath, about what property and assets he owns and where it's located
- The judge will decide if the defendant-debtor should pay everything he owes in one lump sum or if he should pay over time in scheduled installment payments, or if some of the defendant-debtor's property should be turned over to you or sold by the sheriff and the money paid to you
If the defendant-debtor's assets or property is exempt, meaning that it can't be used to pay you because it's protected by law, the disclosure hearing will stop and you'll have to wait six months before starting a new disclosure hearing.
Exempt property and money includes the defendant-debtor's home, up to certain dollar amount; money he receives from public assistance programs, such as worker's compensation, unemployment, and Social Security benefits; and certain dollar amounts of things like clothing and appliances. The court clerk or sheriff may be able to give you a complete list, or you can see it online.
Show up at the hearing! If you don't show up for the scheduled disclosure hearing, it will be stopped or "terminated," and you'll have to wait six months before you can start a new one. If you have to start a new hearing, you'll have to pay new filing fees and fees for having the Notice served.
If the defendant-debtor doesn't show up, you may file a Request for Civil Order of Arrest. You can get the forms needed from the clerk. With his request, the local sheriff will arrest the defendant-debtor and bring him to court for a disclosure hearing. You have to pay the sheriff a fee for making the arrest. The clerk can tell you the current fee amount.
Writ of Execution
Also known as "executing judgment," a Writ of Execution is used when you want to take (or "levy") some of the debtor's property or assets to pay what he owes. This is a multi-step and often complicated process, but generally you have to file an application for the Writ with the court clerk. He can get you the forms you need. You also have to arrange and pay for it to be served on the defendant-debtor, usually by the sheriff. The sheriff will then take any property that's not exempt and sell it, and then arrange for the money to be paid to you. There are fees and other costs involved with the Writ, so be sure to ask the clerk about them.
Writ of Replevin
If you sued the defendant to get some specific personal property and he refuses to turn it over to you, you may ask the court for a Writ of Replevin. The clerk can get you the forms you need and explain the fees involved. Generally, with this writ, the sheriff will serve it on the defendant-debtor, seize the property listed in the Writ of Replevin, and arrange for it to be delivered to you.
Lien on Real Property
Recording a lien against the debtor's real property will prevent the debtor from selling his real property or even refinancing it without having to pay you. To make this work, you first need to get a Writ of Execution. Then, you need to file or record a certified copy of the Writ with the Registry of Deeds office in any county where the defendant-debtor owns real property. The court clerk can get you certified copy of the Writ, for a fee, and you'll have to pay a fee when you record it with a Registry.
Satisfaction of Judgment
You're not required to do anything once the defendant-debtor has paid off or "satisfied" the judgment. However, you should keep good records of all payments made by the defendant-debtor to make sure that you're paid in full. Likewise, if you're the defendant, you should ask for a receipt for all payments you make.
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?