A judicial lien may attach to real estate if the property owner is sued and loses. To find out if a house is subject to any judgment liens, property owners can search the court or county public records, either online or in person. They can also check their credit reports, although credit-reporting agencies are backing off on the reporting of judgment liens. The best way, however, is to hire a title company to run a judgment search.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Judicial liens are a matter of public record, and anyone can find out if any such liens exist on real estate by searching county and court records, either on their own or using a title company. A title search is the most ironclad way to ensure that any and all judgment liens are found.
What Is a Judicial Lien?
A judicial lien, also called a judgment lien, is a type of security interest that attaches to someone's property if a money judgment is entered against him.
Every state has a type of judicial lien, although the requirements for a creditor to obtain one will differ. For example, in New Jersey, if a creditor obtains a judgment against a homeowner, the judgment will become a statewide lien on any real estate he owns in New Jersey, but only if the creditor first takes the extra step of docketing the judgment after it's entered.
In Pennsylvania, on the other hand, a judgment automatically becomes a lien on the homeowner's property in the county where the judgment was entered, but not statewide. If someone only owns property in Dauphin County, for instance, and a creditor obtains a judgment against her in Philadelphia County, the judgment will not be a lien unless the creditor transfers the judgment to Dauphin County.
Searching Court Records
The first place to look for a judgment lien is with the courts that have jurisdiction in the area where the property is located. If a property owner has been sued, he can check the docket for the court case to see if a judgment has been entered. If the status of a lawsuit filing is unclear, the court clerk's office will be open during normal business hours and will permit the public to conduct searches by name.
Many state courts have their records online with free searches, although users may have to pay to actually view documents. All federal courts have online records, and for a fee, users can run searches on PACER.gov nationwide for federal court cases. PACER allows searches by name and Social Security number.
Searching County Records
County records may show judgment liens, depending on the state's laws and rules. The county where the property is located will have a register or recorder of deeds, which is generally where land records are kept. County recorders often have their records online, sometimes for free, but like the court clerk, the county recorder has public office hours during which anyone can come in and search records.
Searchers should be aware, however, the judgment liens may not be available at the recorder's office and may only be available from the court clerk.
Reviewing a Credit Report
In the past, judgment liens would appear on the judgment debtor's credit report and remain there for seven years. However, beginning in 2018, credit-reporting agencies began backing away from reporting judgment liens, and Experian will no longer report them at all. Still, if a lien is older, it may appear on a credit report.
Using a Title Search to Find Judgment Liens
The most thorough way to search for judgment liens on a particular parcel of real estate is to obtain a title search. Interested parties can pay a title company to run a thorough search of all records to see if any judgment liens are attached to a certain parcel of real property. A full title search can be expensive, but title companies will often also perform a more limited search that only searches for judgments. Such a limited search is typically more cost-effective.
- Nolo: What is a Judgment Lien?
- Cogency Global: Public Record Due Diligence: Judgments vs. Judgment Liens
- State Capital: Judgment Liens: What They Are and How to Remove Them
- Realtor.com: What Is a Property Title Search? Why It Matters for Buyers and Sellers
- Experian: Judgments No Longer Included on a Credit Report
- Credit.com: Just How Long do Judgments Stay on Your Credit Report?
- Michael McLaughlin LLC: Judgements
- Flaherty Fardo Rogel & Amick: 5 Steps How to Collect a Judgment in Pennsylvania
- property image by Christopher Hall from Fotolia.com