If a creditor has obtained a judgment against you, it might request that you come to court and answer questions about your finances. This procedure is called a debtor's examination. The purpose is to help the creditor determine how it can collect the judgment if you don't pay up. Creditors also use it to pressure you to pay the judgment.
This article explains what a debtor's exam is, and your rights and obligations when you are ordered to appear for one.
(To learn about ways judgment creditors can collect from you, see How Creditors Collect Debts.)
A debtor's examination is a special proceeding used by judgment creditors to look into ways it can collect a judgment from you, such as using a wage garnishment or attaching funds in a bank account. However, many judgment creditors use debtor's exams to pressure you to pay a debt.
At the debtor's exam, you are required to answer questions, under oath, about your finances and ability to pay the judgment owed to that creditor. The judgment creditor will ask you questions about:
whether you own any assets, including real estate and bank accounts
how much other debt you owe, and to who, and
your employment information, including income and where you work.
A debtor's examination is usually conducted in court (sometimes in a private room), but can also be held at the judgment creditor's attorney's office. It typically lasts no more than 15 to 30 minutes. Once the exam is over, you are free to leave.
Often, a debtor's examination is a harmless affair. If you have no assets and income that the judgment creditor can grab, then this may be as far as the judgment creditor can go with you. Once it learns you have nothing to give, it may walk away. Or, the debtor's exam can be a good opportunity for you to negotiate a settlement with the judgment creditor's attorney, face-to-face.
Be aware, however, that creditors in some states have been known to abuse the debtor's examination; they use it as a means of getting jail sanctions to pressure you to pay. For more information, read Nolo's The New Bill Collector Tactic: Jail Time.
When the creditor first sued you, you did not have to respond to its complaint or come to court if you did not dispute its claim. A debtor's examination is different. Once the creditor has obtained a judgment and the court orders you to appear at a debtor's examination, you must do so.
Possible Jail Time If You Don't Appear and Participate
You cannot go to jail if you do not pay the judgment creditor. However, you can go to jail if you fail to appear for a debtor's exam. If you do not show up, the court may find you in civil contempt for disobeying its order. If you ignore the court's summons, it may also issue a warrant for your arrest. If you are found in contempt, the court may issue sanctions against you, which can include fines and jail time.
If you do appear for the debtor's exam, you must answer the judgment creditor's questions honestly. If you give false or misleading answers, you could be punished for perjury. Usually, you cannot refuse to answer its questions, unless the judgment creditor is being abusive or harassing or does not follow the court's rules and procedures. If you refuse to answer, then you could be found in contempt of court.
At the debtor's examination, you are not allowed to dispute the debt or raise arguments about the creditor's judgment, including whether you feel you owe the debt. The exam is limited solely to how the judgment creditor can collect the debt from you.
How To Avoid Contempt Charges
If you receive a summons, order or some other court-issued document requiring you to appear for a debtor's examination, do not ignore it. If the time and date of the debtor's exam poses a hardship for you (such as a work or school conflict), contact the judgment creditor's attorney to discuss rescheduling it for a more convenient date and time. If the judgment creditor's attorney refuses to work with you to reschedule the debtor's exam, then you should file a written motion requesting a continuance of the debtor's exam with the court.
How To Avoid Appearing at a Debtor's Examination
If you are served with papers requiring you to appear for a debtor's examination, you can legally avoid it in some of the following ways:
- paying the judgment off in full
- making alternative payment arrangements with the judgment creditor, or
- filing bankruptcy, if you are eligible.