Your hard work and determination finally paid off. You won the case you filed in a New Hampshire small claims court! The judge agreed with you decided that the person you sued owes you money. Congratulations!
However, just because you won doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get paid. If you're lucky, the other person will pay what he owes you voluntarily. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen in every case. You have some options when this happens, however, such as:
- Ask for periodic payments
- Getting a writ of execution
- 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 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. If the defendant doesn't pay you, there are a few ways that the court can help you collect on the judgment.
Thirty days after the judge's decision or "judgment," you may file a district court where the small claims case was decided. You have to pay a fee when you file it, and you have to mail a copy of it to the defendant-debtor. The defendant will be required to fie a financial affidavit with the court, which gives details about his property and assets and income and wages. The court will schedule a hearing where you'll be able to ask the defendant about his ability to pay you.
After the hearing, the judge may order the defendant to pay you all at once in a lump sum, or to make weekly or monthly payments to you. If the defendant-debtor doesn't appear at the hearing, and if you can show that he was properly notified about the hearing date, you may request a civil arrest warrant. The sheriff will arrest the defendant and bring him to court for a new hearing.
In some New Hampshire small claims courts, you have to show up at the hearing, too. Make sure you ask the court clerk about this, and if you can't make the scheduled hearing, contact the court immediately and ask that it be rescheduled.
Writ of Execution
Also known as "executing judgment," a Writ of Execution is when you take (or "levy") some of the debtor's property or assets to pay what he owes. You need to file a Petition to Attach and you have to be able to specify what you want levied and where it's located. Once you've been granted a Writ:
- You have to take it to the sheriff who serves the area where the defendant lives or where the property is located, and provide information on where the property or assets can be found
- The sheriff must deliver it to the defendant. Then he may take the items listed in the Writ
- Unless the defendant files a "claim of exemption" (meaning that the asset can't be taken because it's protected by law), the sheriff will either give the money to you directly (if cash was seized) or will sell the property and turnover the sale proceeds to you
With a Writ of Execution, you can usually get to the debtor's:
- Money in bank accounts
- Personal property, like jewelry or art
- Motor vehicles
- Certain real estate, like vacation, rental and investment property
Exempt property or money that can't be reached through the Writ includes the defendant-debtor's homestead real estate (his home); money he receives from public assistance programs, such as worker's compensation, unemployment and Social Security benefits; and a certain amount of things like household furnishings and clothing. The court clerk or sheriff should be able to give you a list of exempt property.
Lien on Real Property
This will prevent the defendant-debtor from selling his real property, even his home, without having to pay you. To make this work, you need to take a certified copy of the small claims judgment to the Registry of Deeds in the county where his land is located. You have to pay the court clerk for a certified copy of the judgment, and you have to pay a fee when you file or "record" it with a Registry.
When your judgment has been paid or "satisfied," you have to "discharge" or release the lien. The Registry of Deeds may be able to help you with this form. If you refuse to release the lien within 30 days after payment, the defendant-debtor may request a discharge, which will require you and the defendant to appear at a hearing. Once the defendant gets a discharge, it's his responsibility to file it with Registry of Deeds.
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 a Writ of Execution or place a lien on his land. If you don't know this information, you should request a hearing for periodic payments as soon as possible.
Satisfaction of Judgment
You're not required to do anything once the defendant-debtor has paid off the judgment. However, the debtor may ask you to sign a "Satisfaction of Judgment" form. By doing so, you agree that the defendant has paid you and that he no longer owes you anything.
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 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?