If I win my case and get a money judgment, when will the defendant pay me?
Depending on the defendant’s financial situation, it can be very difficult to collect a judgment. Some people do not work or have assets and are not able to pay judgments. Other defendants may have the money but refuse to pay it out of spite or for other reasons. A judgment is really just a piece of paper that serves as judicial recognition that this person owes you this amount of money. Unfortunately, just because the judge awarded you a money judgment does not mean that the defendant is immediately going to pay the amount owed. That might happen, but more often, the person with the money judgment will have to take steps to enforce that judgment to force the defendant to pay.
If the defendant has money or other assets, you may want to talk to a lawyer in your state or territory to see what the process is in your jurisdiction. Here are some steps you may be able to take to try and collect (enforce) your judgment:
- In some states, one of the first steps you could take is to file the judgment with the clerk in your jurisdiction. A judgment that is on file will show up on the defendant’s record if s/he tries to buy or sell a house, take out a loan, buy a car, etc. Having a judgment on their record will encourage some people to pay off the judgment. However, not every state allows a person to file the judgment with the clerk.
- If you do not know where the defendant works or what assets s/he might have, some states allow you to serve a set of questions onto the defendant regarding his/her finances. This might be called an information subpoena, a written interrogatory, or something else. Once served, a defendant must complete the questions and provide information about his/her financial status. If s/he does not complete the questions, it might be possible to ask the court to punish him/her for failing to respond.
- You might be able to take additional steps to collect on the judgment. If you know where the defendant works or has a bank account, then it might be possible to garnish the defendant’s wages or take (seize) his/her assets. This process can be complicated depending on the rules in your state. In some states, you may be able to contact the sheriff, marshal, or the constable in your area to see if s/he might be able to assist you with this process. In other states, a judge has to specifically order wage garnishments or asset recovery before that method of collecting a judgment can be used.
However, sometimes none of these are possible because of the defendant’s poor financial situation. A person who cannot pay a judgment is referred to as “judgment-proof” because s/he does not have wages that can be garnished, a bank account or tax refund that can be accessed, or other ways to pay off a judgment. If the person you are thinking about suing is judgment-proof, you may want to think about whether or not the cost and stress of bringing a lawsuit will be worth it when you may not be able to collect on any judgment you might receive.