How to Put a Lien on Someone

By Fraser Sherman - Updated June 16, 2017
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The first step to filing a lien is to get a court ruling that someone owes you an unpaid debt. Then, work with the county where she lives to place the lien on her car or home. Collecting on the lien may take time, as it's not usually practical to seize the property. The court judgment usually goes on the debtor's credit record, which can create an added pressure for her to make good.

Filing a Complaint

Start the ball rolling by filing a complaint with a state civil court or local small claims court. The complaint says the debtor owes you money and won't pay. You can obtain the paperwork and instructions from the courthouse, or possibly the court website. You then "serve" the debtor, delivering a copy of the paperwork to him. The clerk of court can tell you the local rules for proper service. Follow them exactly or your case could be thrown out.

Tip

Small claims courts are cheaper, as they don't use lawyers. However there's a limit to how big a sum you can ask for.

Proving Your Case

When the court hearing rolls around, your lawyer – or you, if you're going without an attorney – presents evidence to the judge. To get a judgment, you have to show proof that the defendant owes you money and hasn't paid. If she doesn't respond to your filing or attend the hearing, you can probably get a default judgment in your favor. If the defendant appears and presents counter-arguments – the money was a gift, not a loan, say – the judge will decide which of you to believe.

Finding Property

After you win the judgment, you have to find the debtor's property. The debtor is supposed to provide that information during the court case. If not, he has to come to court so you can grill him about his property. You may also be able to locate the property yourself. If the debtor's a homeowner, you can find where he lives and place a lien on the house.

Filing The Lien

To file a real estate lien, go to the records office in the county where the property is located. Carry out the office's instructions for recording the lien. If you identify the debtor's vehicle, you can record a lien on the car with the state motor vehicles office. You can apply liens on other types of property, but debtors have legal protection that makes collecting on anything beside cars and real estate difficult.

Tip

You may be able to use a court judgment to collect on a debtor's wages or bank account. The procedures are different, so check with the court on how to do it.

The Waiting Game

Wait for the debtor to sell her property. This is the simplest, although slowest, way to collect, because nobody's going to buy a house or car with a lien on it. If she wants to sell, she has to pay off the lien first. Suing to collect immediately is harder and more expensive. The mortgage or auto loan company will have a prior claim, so until they're paid off, you won't see a penny.

Tip

Renew the lien if you have to. State laws set limits on how long judgment liens last. If you don't renew, the lien expires and your debtor may be free of you.

About the Author

A Durham, NC resident, Fraser has written about law, starting a business, balancing your budget and fighting evictions, among other legal and financial topics.

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