Someone refused to pay money that was owed to you so you filed a lawsuit in the New Jersey small claims court, and you won. The judge agreed that the defendant owed you money. Congratulations! Now, you have to figure out how to get him to pay. Just because you won doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get your money.
If you're lucky, the defendant will pay you voluntarily after the judge decides the case. He may pay you all at once, or maybe you both agree to a payment schedule that lets the defendant pay off the judgment over time. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen in every case. Defendants often try to avoid paying small claims judgments. If this happens to you, there are some things you can do, such as:
- Getting a writ of execution on the defendant's personal property and wages
- Taking or "levying" the defendant's bank accounts
- Placing a lien against the defendant's real property
The Names have Changed
From the time you filed the lawsuit in the New Jersey small claims court to the date the judgment was entered, you were known as the "plaintiff," because you filed the suit. The person you sued was called the "defendant." Now that you've won, you're known as the judgment creditor - you're owed money - and the defendant is now known as the judgment debtor - he's in debt to you.
After the judge decides the case and the clerk enters the judgment, the first thing you should do is talk to the defendant. 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.
Writ of Execution
Also know as "executing judgment," this is when you take (or "levy") some of the debtor's property or assets to pay what he owes. In New Jersey small claims court, an execution on goods and chattels lets you get to the defendant-debtor's:
- Money in bank accounts
- Personal property, like jewelry or art
- Motor vehicles
You can't get to all of the defendant's property and assets. For example, you can't have his real estate seized and sold to pay your judgment. Also, you can't take money he receives in child support or that he gets from public assistance programs, such as worker's compensation, unemployment and Social Security benefits.
Once you get a writ of execution on personal property or wages, a court officer from the Special Civil Part will try to collect from the defendant. A 10% fee is added to the amount of your judgment as the court officer's commission. The fee is taken directly from the money collected by the court officer. So, any cash payments made by the defendant after the writ is issued have to be made directly to the court officer or to the court and not directly to you. Court personnel take care of the bookkeeping, collect the commission, and then send you the balance.
If, after a writ has been issued, you and the defendant work out some settlement agreement, the court officer is still entitled to 10% of the amount paid to you under the settlement.
It's up to you to find out where the defendant's personal property or money is located. To help, you can file:
- An information subpoena, which is set of written questions about the defendant's assets, which she must answer within 14 days. If she doesn't do so, she may be held in contempt of court, which means she may be fined and put in jail for disobeying the court's order. You can get the subpoena form from the Clerk of the Superior Court, Special Civil Part where you filed the suit
- A Motion to Enforce Litigant's Rights, which is basically your request for a court order demanding that the defendant (or anyone else with information about his assets) answer questions about the assets at a specific time and time specified set by the court. You have to file an information subpoena before you file this motion. And, again, if the defendant doesn't obey, he may be held in contempt
Personal Property. You can ask the court to seize and sell the defendant's personal property to pay your judgment. Personal property includes office equipment, tools, cars, and electronics. The debtor-defendant is allowed keep $1,000 worth of his property, so if he doesn't have $1,000 worth of personal property to begin with, you can't use this method to collect on the judgment. If you ask the court officer to seize and sell the defendant's car, you have to show that it's registered in the defendant's name. You do this by getting a certified copy of the title and a certified lien search from the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.
Bank Accounts. You can ask the court officer to seize money in the debtor-defendant's savings or checking account located in New Jersey. You need to know the bank's name and address. If you can get the account number the process will be quicker, because the court officers aren't required to search for accounts numbers.
Once the court officer levies on the money, the funds are considered "frozen." At this point you have to file a Motion to Turn Over Funds with the court. You also have to make sure that the defendant and the bank get a copy of the Motion. Once the court grants the Motion, the bank will be ordered to give you the money.
Wages. If the defendant-debtor earns more than $196.50 per week and works in New Jersey, you can try to execute against his wages. This also known as wage garnishment. You need to file a Notice of Application for Wage Execution with the court and send a copy to the defendant. If the defendant fights or "objects to" the wage execution, the court will schedule a hearing immediately. If there's no objection (or the court rejects an objection after a hearing), the court will issue an Order for Wage Execution to the defendant's employer. The employer will be required to withhold a portion of the defendant's weekly pay and send it to the court officer. The court officer will then send it to you.
Fees. The court officer or clerk can tell you the fees for executing on the defendant's personal property, bank accounts, or wages.
Lien on Real Property
If all other collection efforts fail, you can have your small claims judgment recorded in the Superior Court Clerk's Office in Trenton. Once your judgment is recorded, the defendant can't sell with clear title any real estate he owns in New Jersey until your judgment is paid. This is called placing a lien on the property. In New Jersey, this process is called "docketing a judgment."
To record a judgment, need to get a "Statement for Docketing" from the court clerk where you filed the small claims suit. You need to file the Statement with the Clerk of the Superior Court.
The clerk can give you the necessary forms and tell you the current fee schedule for docketing a judgment.
Satisfaction of Judgment
Once the defendant-debtor has paid the judgment, whether it was paid voluntarily or through executing the judgment, you need to file a warrant of satisfaction with the court where you filed the small claims action.
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?