How Judgments Are Entered in Small Claims Court
Find out how you learn about the judge's decision in your case
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In most states, the decision in your case will be mailed to the address on record with the clerk any time from a few days to a few weeks after your case is heard. The exception to this rule is when one side doesn't show up and the other wins by default. Default judgments are normally announced right in the courtroom.
The truth is that in the vast majority of contested cases, the judge has already made a decision at the time the case is heard and jots down the decision before the parties leave the courtroom. Decisions are sent by mail because the court doesn't want to deal with angry, unhappy losers in court, especially those few who might get violent. However, despite the fact that an occasional person may be upset, some judges are willing to announce and explain their decisions in court, on the theory that both parties are entitled to know why a particular decision was reached. One judge explained his policy in this regard as follows: "The only time I don't announce my decision in court is when I have phoning or research to do before finalizing it, or if I feel that the losing party will be unnecessarily embarrassed in front of the audience."
Don't be flummoxed by the judge who takes everything under submission and sends the results by mail. If, when you receive the decision, you have questions about it, consider writing to the judge (send a copy to your opponent) with a respectful request for a further explanation of the judge's reasoning. Most judges will respond. The person who wins the case (gets the judgment) now becomes the judgment creditor, and the loser is known as the judgment debtor.
Often, when a judgment is entered, the losing party feels that the judge would surely have made a different decision if he or she hadn't gotten mixed up, overlooked a crucial fact, or failed to understand an argument. On the basis of my experience on the bench, I would say that in the vast majority of cases this is not true. Even if you had an opportunity to argue the whole case over, there is little likelihood that you would change the judge's mind. Or put another way, chances are good the judge did understand your side of the case but simply didn't agree that you were in the right.
If you sued more than one person, the judgment should indicate who the judgment is against and for how much. Some defendants may not owe anything, or their financial liability may be limited to a stated amount. If so, this is the maximum you can collect from them. However, in most instances where a judgment is against two or more defendants, they will be jointly and severally liable. This means that each defendant is 100% on the hook for the entire amount. For example, if you receive a $1,000 judgment against two defendants, you may collect it in any proportion from either defendant (for example, you could collect $800 from one defendant and $200 from another). If you collect a disproportionate amount from one defendant, that person is left with the task of evening things out. (In this example, the defendant who paid the $800 could sue the other for $300.)
The words joint and several liability may not appear on the judgment. A judgment against two or more defendants will often simply list the names of the judgment debtors. This means they are jointly and severally liable for the entire amount. In cases where one defendant's judgment debt liability is limited (say to $200), the judgment will make that clear.
Paying the Judgment
Most judgments are orders to pay the winner the total amount due in one lump sum. In most states, the judge can choose to order that the loser be allowed to pay the winner in installments over a period of time, however, a judge normally won't make this sort of order unless you request it. If you want to pay in installments if you lose your case, be sure you let the judge know. You might put your request this way:
- "In closing my presentation, I would like to say that I believe I have a convincing case and should be awarded the judgment, but in the event that you rule for my opponent, I would like you to allow me time payments of no more than [an amount convenient to you] per month."
Or, if you have no real defense:
- "Your Honor, I request that you enter the judgment against me for no more than [an amount convenient to you] per month."
If you neglect to ask for time payments in court and wish to make this request after you receive the judgment, first contact the other party to see whether the person will voluntarily agree to accept the money on a schedule under which you can afford to pay. If the other party agrees, it is wise to write your agreement down and each sign it. Some courts also have a form for you to fill out.
If your opponent is an all-or-nothing sort of person and refuses payments, promptly contact the court clerk and ask that the case again be brought before the judge–not as to the facts, but only to set up a payment schedule you can live with. The clerk should arrange things for you, but if there is a problem, write a letter like this one to the judge:
Sample Letter to Judge Requesting Installment Payments
October 17, 20xx
Honorable Felix Hamburg
Re: Elliot v. Toller
Index No. __________
Dear Judge Hamburg:
I recently appeared before you in the case of Elliot v. Toller (Index No. ________). Mr. Elliot was awarded a judgment in the amount of $526. Paying this amount all at once would be nearly impossible because of [state reason, such as lack of employment or illness]. I can pay $25 per month.
Please change the order in this case to allow for a $25 per month payment. If it is necessary for me to make this request in court, please inform me of the time I should be present.
In some states, the judgment debtor may pay the amount of the judgment directly to the small claims court, which will then notify the judgment creditor. This procedure is helpful for a judgment debtor who doesn't want to deal directly with the prevailing party or doesn't know the person's current address. Contact your small claims clerk to find out whether your court has a direct pay procedure.
Notify the court when you move. It's important to keep your current address on file if you've won a lawsuit but haven't yet been paid. That way, you won't miss out on your money in a situation where the losing party pays the court and the court can't find you.
Renewing Your Judgment
Judgments expire after a certain number of years–usually between five and 20, depending on the state. Be aware that the expiration periods may differ if you are collecting on a judgment that was originally entered in another state. Fortunately, most states allow you to renew your judgment–and any liens based on it–if you do so before the expiration date. For information on how to renew a judgment, contact your small claims court clerk's office.