If you’re owed money in the state of Pennsylvania, winning a lawsuit is only the starting point of collecting the debt. The goal is getting paid. While the court judgment confirms that the debtor owes you money, it doesn’t automatically give you the right to collect what you’re owed. To force collection remedies, you’ll need to take some further steps and authorize the county sheriff to collect payment on your behalf.
What’s the Debtor Worth?
There’s not much point in bringing down the hammer on a debtor who owes you money but doesn’t have the ability to pay. The first step is to figure out if the debtor has any properties or a bank account to which you can attach a lien. Purchasing a background screen or a credit report should give you a heads up on what assets the debtor might own. Be aware that you can’t go after all the debtor’s assets to pay the debt. Every state has certain assets it declares “exempt” from debt collection. In Pennsylvania, you can’t take money directly from the debtor’s wages and you must leave him with at least $300 cash in the bank. Retirement funds, unemployment and disability are also untouchable assets.
How to File a Writ of Execution PA
Once you’ve received the court judgement, take it to the court records office and file for a writ of execution. The writ is an official “green light” that authorizes the county sheriff’s department to force the debtor to pay. Take your original writ bearing the court’s seal to the sheriff’s office and complete the Sheriff Instruction Sheet, which the Sheriff’s office will provide. Use the form to select which actions you want the sheriff to perform such as seizing and selling the debtor’s assets or taking money directly from the debtor’s bank account.
Selling Assets and Vehicles
Armed with a writ of execution, the sheriff has the power to seize all types of personal assets such as jewelry, televisions, laptops, firearms, vehicles, antiques and other valuables. To do this, the sheriff will serve the writ of execution and then make an inventory of all the assets he wishes to seize and sell. Once the inventory is taken, it’s illegal for the debtor to remove any of the listed items. The sheriff will usually schedule a sale within a few weeks; details are posted on a dedicated web page, for example, the Allegheny county sheriff sale web page. Each item will carry a minimum “upset” price equal to the value of the judgment plus the sheriff’s costs. If no one bids high enough, you can pay the sheriff’s costs yourself, take the assets, and keep them or sell them as you wish.
Seizing the Debtor’s Bank Accounts
To seize a bank account in Pennsylvania, the sheriff will serve an “interrogatories to the garnishee” statement on the debtor’s bank. This is a type of legal order which asks the bank to confirm whether it is holding any money of the debtor. If it is, then the debtor’s account is immediately frozen. The bank should release the value of the judgment debt to you within 30 days, less the $300 statutory exemption, so it’s a relatively fast way of collecting a judgment in Pennsylvania. You can’t garnish a marital bank account, however; you can garnish only accounts that are held in the debtor’s sole name.
How to File a Lien Against the Debtor’s Home
If the debtor owns a house or land, then filing a lien will stop the debtor from selling or mortgaging the property without paying the judgment first. It’s easy to file a lien – just take your judgment to each of the 67 Pennsylvania counties where the debtor owns properties and file it with the local court. A lien will automatically attach to the debtor’s home in that county. Judgment liens are good for 20 years in Pennsylvania. However, you will have to file a “revival of judgment” with the county Prothonotary’s Office every five years to keep the lien alive.
The easiest way to collect on a judgment in Pennsylvania is to file a writ of execution with the local sheriff’s office. This authorizes the sheriff to seize the debtor’s bank account or sell his possessions.
Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a commercial writer. Her work has appeared on numerous legal blogs including Quittance, Upcounsel and Medical Negligence Experts.