Don't think the small claims process is over just because you filed a claim, went to trial and won a court judgment. You may need to take action and spend money to enforce the judgment. Sometimes it's difficult or even impossible to enforce the judgment.
Collecting a court judgment can be one of the most challenging and frustrating aspects of any lawsuit. The person who is obligated to pay the judgment, called the debtor, may not have the money to pay it or may simply refuse to pay it.
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.
If the judgment is in your favor, it's the duty of the other party to pay immediately. The court doesn't collect the judgment for you. If your judgment is not appealed or paid within 30 days, you can start trying to collect the judgment.
Enforcing a Judgment
Enforcement procedures are available, but these require extra effort and also money on your part. Enforcing a judgment includes locating the debtor and the debtor's assets. Available assets usually include the income earned by the debtor, savings and other bank accounts, investment accounts, real estate, automobiles, trucks, jewelry, contents of safe deposit boxes in banks and so forth.
You can have the sheriff serve the debtor with a notice of a debtor's examination. In a debtor's exam, you can ask the debtor what type of property he owns, where that property is located and whether or not the debtor has a job. Your county courthouse will have more information about this exam and the necessary forms.
You can collect from the debtor's money in accounts or property located in a safe deposit box at a bank or credit union. However, you'll need to know the branch where the accounts are maintained or the safe deposit box is located.
You can ask the court to order the debtor's employer to withhold a portion of the debtor's wages from the debtor's earnings each pay period to pay the judgment. The law limits the amount of money an employer can withhold and the type of income that can be withheld, so you may want to ask a lawyer about the specific garnishment rules in Pennsylvania.
Writ of Execution
You can ask the court to order the sheriff to pick up any personal property belonging to the debtor and then sell it to pay the judgment. This order, called a writ of execution, must be served by a process server. The writ directs the sheriff to put a levy on the defendant's property, which means the sheriff will list the items that can be sold if the defendant doesn't pay the claim within 15 days. If, after 15 days you still have not received payment, you may have the defendant's goods sold at auction.
You will probably have to post a bond to protect the sheriff's office from being sued in the event the property actually belongs to someone other than the debtor. You will also have to pay to have the property stored while the sheriff advertises the sale. These costs can be added to the total amount of the judgment and taken out of the money received from the sale of the property. Certain property, such as the debtor's home, any vehicle the debtor needs for work, welfare benefits and Social Security payments, can't be taken by the sheriff.
If you go through with the sheriff's sale, it's a good idea to attend the sale and bring others who might be interested in purchasing the defendant's goods. Otherwise, there may be no buyers. The buyer must be prepared to remove the goods after the sale. The proceeds of the sale will go toward satisfying the judgment.
Satisfaction of Judgment
Once the judgment and costs of collecting the judgment are paid, you'll need to file a satisfaction of judgment form with the court so the judgment is no longer officially outstanding and the debtor's credit record can be cleared.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can an attorney help me collect a judgment?
- How can I locate a debtor?
- Will the clerk of circuit court help me to collect a judgment?