A judgment is a document that confirms a judge’s decision in a lawsuit. If the judgment is against you, the lawsuit didn’t go your way – the judge ruled for the person or entity that sued you. This person is called the plaintiff and is often a creditor. The judgment should state how much money the judge awarded the plaintiff and what interest you must pay on the debt. In most cases, it will obligate you to pay the legal costs the plaintiff incurred in suing you, too. A judgment is a matter of public record and will appear on your credit report. The plaintiff can use it to try to collect from you, such as by garnishing your bank accounts or wages or placing liens against your property.
The Legal Process
The plaintiff can’t just file a complaint against you, then march into court to automatically collect the judgment. It must serve you with the paperwork according to the rules in your state. This is often as simple as sending you a copy by certified mail. The complaint is usually accompanied by a summons that tells you how long you have to respond in writing – called filing an answer -- and when a hearing has been scheduled so you can attend and present your arguments or defenses to the judge. You can also include your arguments and defenses in your answer.
If the judge doesn’t agree with your side of the story, he’ll rule in favor of the plaintiff and issue a judgment against you. It’s also possible that he might think the plaintiff’s case has merit, but that you’ve made some reasonable arguments. In this case, the judge might award the plaintiff less than he asked for in the complaint or cut you a break with the interest or legal fees.
A Judgment By Default
You might find yourself served with a creditor’s complaint only to think that you really have no defense – you owe the money, plain and simple. Maybe you took out a personal loan, then lost your job and had no way to pay it off. Under the circumstances, it might be tempting to not respond to the lawsuit or appear in court. But if you don’t respond, it’s a slam dunk win for the plaintiff. The court will order a default judgment against you without any input from you, usually giving the plaintiff everything he asks for.
If you receive a lawsuit complaint, take it to legal aid or a lawyer for review to make absolutely sure you have no defense. Judges sometimes order payment terms rather than the lump sum you owe, but only if you show up in court and ask. This is still a judgment against you, but as long as you abide by its terms, no one can use it to seize your bank account or wages.
Notification of the Judgment
Judgments are typically entered or filed with the court so they become official a couple of days after the hearing. The clerk of the court will typically send you a copy, though in some courts the creditor or his attorney is responsible for doing so. Don’t assume that you dodged a bullet if you didn’t attend the hearing and don't receive a judgment in the mail. Instead, pull a copy of your credit report. The judgment will appear there after a reasonable period of time if you lost the lawsuit. You can then contact the court, the plaintiff or his attorney and request a copy. Or, you can just call the court directly to find out what happened at the hearing if you have the case or docket number on the original complaint.
Statutes of Limitation
A judgment against you can last for several years. Exactly how long depends on your state's laws, but it can be as many as 20 years and many states allow judgment holders to renew them for an additional period of time unless you pay off the underlying debt, interest and legal fees.