How to Collect
Need Professional Help? Talk to a Lawyer.
Once the relevant waiting period is up, what should you do? There are a few possibilities.
Ask for Payment
Start by asking politely for your money. This works in many cases, especially if you have sued a responsible person or business. If you don't have personal contact with the party who owes you money, try a note like the sample below.
Sample Request For Payment
P.O. Box 66
Re: Toller vs. Edwards (Small Claims Case No. 200600)
Dear Mrs. Edwards:
As you know, a judgment was entered against you in small claims court on January 15 in the amount of $1,457.86. As the judgment creditor, I would appreciate your paying this amount within ten days.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Very truly yours,
Payment Through the Court
Your judgment debtor may be willing to pay up–but may not want to deal directly with you. In some states, the judgment debtor can pay the judgment to the court instead. Contact your small claims court clerk to find out whether this is an option in your state. If so, it might make sense to write a short note explaining that payment can be made to the court. (See the sample letter, below.) The court may charge the debtor for this service. Once the court receives payment, it will notify you. If you fail to claim the payment within a certain amount of time, the state will probably get to keep the money–which is an important reason to keep your current address on file with the court.
Collecting the Money
If you receive no payment after sending a polite note, you will have to get serious about collecting your money–or forget it. The emphasis in the previous sentence should be on the word "you." To many people's surprise, the court will not enforce your judgment and collect the money for you–you have to do it yourself.
Fortunately, a few of the ways to legally collect money from a debtor are relatively easy–if the debtor has any money in the first place. Hopefully you gave some thought to collection before you brought your case. If you only now realize that your opponent doesn't have the money to buy a toothbrush, let alone pay off your judgment, you are better off not wasting more time and money trying to get your money, at least for the present. In some situations, you may want to sit on your judgment with the hope that your judgment debtor will show signs of economic life sometime in the future. But if the debtor owns real estate, you'll want to immediately put a lien on the property so that money from a sale will go to pay your judgment, even if the only property the person currently owns is a residence that is exempt from being sold. (See "Creating Property Liens," below.)
Collection rules are getting tighter. A few states, such as New York, are putting teeth into their collection rules. In New York, if a judgment debtor who is solvent doesn't pay three or more small claims court judgments which were based on a repeated course of conduct or the debtor's business transactions, a judgment creditor can get triple the judgment as damages, plus attorney fees. Contact the small claims court clerk to see about any collection rules in your jurisdiction.