Successfully suing someone in small claims court is often just the beginning of actually collecting the money he owes you. Once you receive a judgment, your next step depends on the rules in your state. If you contact the judgment debtor and he doesn’t pay you willingly, you’ll have to take additional legal action.
Find the Judgment Debtor’s Assets
Your first challenge is to determine what property or assets the judgment debtor owns and where he works, if you don’t have this information already. State laws differ, but depending on where you live, you might be able to issue a subpoena demanding this information. Other states require judgment debtors to file a statement of assets with the court after the judgment against them is awarded.
Involve the Court or Law Enforcement
After you’ve determined the extent of the judgment debtor’s assets, you can approach the court, or in some jurisdictions your county sheriff or marshal, to request execution of your judgment. In some states, law enforcement can get a writ of execution for you, allowing you to place a lien on the debtor's property, but in others, you must apply directly to the court. A judge can issue an order directing the judgment debtor to relinquish cash or personal property to law enforcement or -- if you sued a business -- allowing the sheriff or marshal to collect the money directly from the establishment’s cash register. A great deal of personal property is usually exempt from seizure, including household goods, tools of trade, items of sentimental value and certain retirement accounts.
The judge can also issue a garnishment order. You, the court or law enforcement can serve it on the judgment debtor’s employer, obligating him to withhold a certain percentage of his pay and turn it over to you. Federal law limits the amount to 30 times the federal minimum wage or 25 percent of the debtor's earnings after mandatory taxes, whichever is less. You can also use a writ of execution to garnish the debtor’s accounts if you can find out where he banks.
Liens Against Property
Another option is to use your small claims court judgment to place a lien against the judgment debtor’s property. With real estate, this often involves recording the judgment in the county where the property is located -- the rules and procedures vary depending on where you live. If you contact the sheriff’s office in the county where the property is located, personnel there can usually guide you as to what you need to do. Liens against real estate typically aren’t collectable until the property is sold or owner wants to refinance -- then you're paid from the proceeds. Most states have homestead exemptions, however, which can protect much or all of the property’s equity from judgment creditors if it is the debtor's residence.
The unfortunate truth is that some small claims judgments are simply uncollectable. Some debtors are “judgment proof.” They own little or no property, they don’t have bank accounts and they’re out of work. You can’t use your judgment to garnish sources of income like unemployment benefits, Social Security or disability benefits. But even if your judgment debtor falls into this category, don’t throw in the towel. In some states, judgments can be good for up to 20 years and you can ask the court to extend it if you’re nearing the expiration date. Just because a debtor is judgment proof now doesn’t mean he will still be broke and unemployed years into the future.
Read More: How to Enforce a Judgment
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.