Finding a Debtor's Assets

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Collecting your small claims judgment isn't too difficult if the judgment debtor has some money or property and you know where it is. But what do you do if you suspect that money or other assets exist but you have no idea how to find them? For example, you may know a person works, but not where, or that he or she has money in the bank, but not which one.

Judgment Debtor's Statement

In many states the loser (judgment debtor) must fill out a form listing his or her assets. Typically, the judgment debtor must send a completed copy of this form to the person who won the case (the judgment creditor) within a certain number of days after the judgment is mailed out by the clerk–unless the judgment debtor pays off the judgment, appeals, or asks the judge to reverse a default judgment. If the judgment debtor fails to complete the statement (which, unfortunately, is all too common), the judgment creditor may be able to ask the court to hold the debtor in contempt of court, and even issue a bench warrant for his or her arrest. Ask a small claims adviser how to ask the court to hold the debtor in contempt.

Order for Examination

If the judgment debtor doesn't fill out the Statement of Assets form when required to do so (or if no such form exists), another tool is available in most states. The judgment creditor can ask the court clerk to issue an order requiring the judgment debtor to appear in court in person to be questioned. In some states, this is called an order for examination or judgment debtor's examination. This order, which must be properly served on the judgment debtor, requires the debtor to show up in court and provide the information personally. Typically, if the debtor fails to show up, the judge can issue a bench warrant for the person's arrest.

There are usually some limits to your use of this procedure. You can't require the judgment debtor to travel too far to participate, for example.

Ask for relevant documents. You may want the judgment debtor to bring certain documents to the examination. Bank statements, vehicle records, and documents regarding property ownership may be helpful in trying to collect. To do this, you must ask the clerk to issue a subpoena for documents. 

At the debtor's examination, in many states the judgment creditor can ask whether the debtor has any cash in his or her possession. If so, the judge may issue a "turnover order," authorizing you to take the cash right then and there to satisfy at least a portion of the debt. You will probably need to request the court to issue a turnover order.

Collecting Judgments Across State Lines

What if your judgment debtor moves to another state, or you discover that he or she owns property or assets elsewhere? Collecting on the judgment will become less convenient, but it is still possible. The majority of states have enacted what's called the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act, creating standard procedures for going after a debtor's assets or property across state lines.Here's how it ordinarily works: Say you file your small claims case in Illinois and get a judgment for $2,500. When you try to collect, you discover that the debtor has moved to Florida. In order to start your collection efforts, you will need to file your judgment in Florida, the new state. The procedure there, as in most states, is that you mail a certified copy of the original judgment to the Florida court clerk (usually in the area of the state where the judgment debtor lives), along with an affidavit showing your and the judgment debtor's names and addresses. (Some states vary this routine, so check with the court clerk first.) Once the court receives the certified copy and affidavit, your filing becomes a valid part of the court record. The court may notify the judgment debtor of your filing, or you may need to serve notice on the judgment debtor. When this is done, you can proceed with your collection efforts, following the collection laws of the new state.

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