Congratulations! The judge of the Washington small claims court agreed with you and decided that the defendant owes you money. However, just because you won doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get paid. If you're lucky, the defendant (or the plaintiff, if you won a counterclaim) 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
- Having a lien placed against the defendant's real property
- Having the defendant's driver's license suspended
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, there are two things you should immediately:
- Talk to the defendant. See if she can pay you immediately, or try to arrange a payment schedule
- Ask the judge to arrange a payment schedule and to make it part of the judgment
If no one appeals the judge's decision, and the defendant doesn't pay the judgment within 30 days after the judgment's entered in the court records, or not within the time set by the court in the payment plan, file an application to have the judgment transferred to the district court's civil docket. The district court clerk can get you the form that you need, and you have to pay a $20 filing fee. Once the judgment has been transferred, you can then take other steps to 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. You need to ask the judge for this writ 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 it delivered to (or "served on") the debtor, which usually is done by a deputy sheriff who serves the area where the debtor lives or where the property is located
- The deputy may take the items listed in the writ once it's been served on the debtor
- Unless the debtor files a "claim of exemption" (meaning that the asset is protected by law and can't be taken), the deputy will either give the money to you directly or sell the property and give you the sale proceeds
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
Exempt property or money that can't be reached through the writ include the debtor's homestead real estate (his home) and money he receives from public assistance programs, such as worker's compensation, unemployment, and Social Security benefits.
There are forms you need to file to get this writ, and there are fees for filing it and for having it served. The district court clerk can give the forms and other details.
This is when you arrange for money to be taken directly out of the debtor's paycheck and paid to you. To do this, you have to know there the debtor works, and you have to file an application for the writ. Once you're granted the writ, you need to make sure that it's served on the debtor's employer. It tells the employer to withhold some of the debtor's wages, which usually can't be more than 25% per weekly pay, and to pay it to you.
Again, you need to see the district court clerk for the forms you need to get this writ and for details on the fees for filing the application and for having it served on the debtor and his employer.
Lien on Real Property
This will prevent the debtor from selling his real property or even refinancing it without having to pay you. To make this work, you need:
- Buy a copy of the certified judgment, which will cost $5
- Take the certified judgment to the superior court of any county where the defendant-debtor has real property. You need to pay a $15 filing fee for each court it's filed in
Once the judgment is filed, you have a lien against the defendant's property in that county.
If your small claims lawsuit or claim involved a car accident and the other party didn't have insurance, you can have his driver's license suspended. You have to wait 30 days after the judgment was entered, and you need a certified copy of the judgment, which you can get from the district court clerk. Once you have that, contact the Washington Department of Licensing for details on how to have the license suspended.
It's your responsibility to get information about where the debtor 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. If you don't know this information, you can ask the district court clerk about how to go about finding this information, or you can hire an attorney or a collection agency to help you.
Satisfaction of Judgment
Once the debtor pays the judgment, you have to file a "Satisfaction of Judgment" with the district court clerk. By doing so, you agree that the debtor has paid you and that he no longer owes you anything. You can the form from the clerk.
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 judgment debtor 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?
Related Resources on Lawyers.comsm
- Start the process with our Washington Small Claims Worksheet
- Next in the Small Claims series: Alternatives to Small Claims Court in Washington
- Success In Small Claims Court
- Small Claims Court Terms
- Defending a Small Claims Court Case
- Visit our Small Claims Court Forum for more help