What Happens After a Default Judgment?

By Teo Spengler ; Updated April 19, 2017
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If you obtain a default judgment from the court and the defendant doesn't move to set it aside, it operates as a judgment against him. You can proceed to collect under a money judgment or enforce whatever rights you have won.

What Is a Default Judgment?

An entry of default is the legal equivalent of the "you snooze, you lose" rule. Once a defendant has been given notice of the court case against him, he has a limited amount of time to appear before the court.

One of the documents the defendant receives is called a "summons" which sets out his time frame for answering the complaint and/or appearing before the court. (The time frame depends on the court and state in which you are proceeding.) It also lets him know that, if he doesn't take action, the court can enter his default and then order a default judgment against him.

In fact, the court isn't counting down the days, nor will it leap in of its own accord to bar his way to the courthouse door if he is late. This is your job as the person filing the lawsuit. Once you know that he has been given the legal documents in a way the law requires (e.g. someone handing them to him personally, etc.) calculate and mark on the calendar his final day to answer or appear.

When he doesn't file an answer and doesn't show up, you prepare all the documentation, enter his default and to get a default judgment from the court. Don't think it's a done deal, however, because if the defendant does appear at the default hearing, the court usually allows him to proceed. But if he doesn't, and your papers are in order and your evidence persuasive, you can walk out of court with a default judgment.

So what happens then?

What Happens After a Default Judgment Is Issued?

Assuming the judge signs your papers, the first thing you need to do is to make a copy and have it served on the defendant. Check your state's rules, but often you can have a third party mail the copy to the defendant, then complete a Proof of Service by Mail that is filed with the court.

Your next step is to take action to enforce your judgment. If the judgment is for money, you might file for a writ of execution to attach a bank account. If the judgment is for possession of an apartment, you might call the sheriff's office to organize an eviction. Your rights are the same as if you went to trial and won.

What Is a Motion to Vacate?

A defendant who missed the deadline to answer a complaint and fails to show up at the entry of default hearing may, in time, decide to act. The defendant can file a Motion to Vacate. Generally the court grants the motion if the defendant shows he was not served with the complaint or that his failure to appear was based on mistake or excusable neglect.

The court has a lot of discretion in how it deals with a motion for relief from a default judgment. If the court vacates the default, you are back to the beginning, arguing the matter on the merits of the issues.

About the Author

Living in France and Northern California, Teo Spengler is an attorney, novelist and writer and has published thousands of articles about travel, gardening, business and law. Spengler holds a Master of Arts in creative writing from San Francisco State University and a Juris Doctor from UC Berkeley. She is currently a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in fiction.