Legal How-To: Enforcing a Small Claims Judgment - Law and Daily Life
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Legal How-To: Enforcing a Small Claims Judgment

How do you enforce a small claims judgment? As good as it may feel to win in small claims court, it's only part of the battle. The fight over collecting your judgment may be just as contentious.

Despite the fact that it's just small claims court, where claims are limited to a certain dollar amount (typically about $5,000 or less), it's often still very difficult to collect payment from the defendant.

As courts usually don't get involved in enforcing small claims judgments, it's generally up to you to collect what's rightfully yours. Here are a few options you may want to consider:

Is the Other Party Appealing the Decision?

Your judgment debtor usually has some time (typically 30 days in most states) to file an appeal. If he or she has filed, you'll have to wait until that has been decided before trying to collect.

Try Drafting a Demand Letter.

If the time to pay up has passed or there was no appeal filed, you can try sending a letter to the debtor demanding payment or offering to work out a payment plan. Make sure to include the case number and to make a copy for your own records. This may do the trick in "scaring" or reminding the other party about their legal obligation.

For this purpose, signing up for a personal legal plan may be advantageous. Plans like those offered by LegalStreet include attorney-drafted letters on your behalf (up to 2 pages), as well as on-call access to local lawyers who can answer legal questions on a wide range of topics. LgealStreet plans are also affordable, starting at less than $13 a month.

Pursue Formal Collection Methods.

If your debtor is being unresponsive or uncooperative, you can turn to actual collection methods. Most states, like New York and California, will employ local sheriffs or a city marshal who can help with enforcement processes.

Here are a few common ways you can enforce collection:

  • Bank levy. With the help of a court order (in California, for example, it's either an Order of Examination or an Information Subpoena), you can compel the losing party to appear in court to answer questions or submit documents about his or her income and bank accounts. You can then seize the money from your debtor's bank accounts through a process called a bank levy.
  • Real estate/property lien. A real estate lien can be placed on the debtor's property. The lien can be created by registering your judgment with the County Recorder's office where the debtor owns property. Keep in mind, though, that a lien may require more time -- the debtor may not decide to sell the property or transfer any of it to you. The amount collected may also be limited by state law.
  • Wage garnishment. If the debtor is employed, you may be able to get your judgment enforced via his or her wages. Find out what the process is in your state. In general, it may require bringing proof of your judgment to your local sheriff or levying officer who may be able to help you collect the money from the debtor's employer.

Need More Help?

Enforcing a small claims judgment may take a lot of effort, and it can get complicated. Check out FindLaw's small claims court page to look up the particular small claims court rules in your state. You can also head to our Lawyer Directory to find an experienced collections lawyer near you.

(Disclosure: LegalStreet and FindLaw.com are owned by the same company.)

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