Collecting From a Judgment Debtor: Wage Garnishment, Property Liens, and Bank Account Levies

Learn about some of the different collection methods for getting money from a judgment debtor.

You’ve won your case, and the other party (the judgment debtor) owes you money. However, there’s still work to do. Now you need to collect. In this article, you’ll learn about the steps you can take if the judgment debtor doesn’t pay voluntarily.

(If you’d like to know more about what happens after you receive a money judgment, including how to find property, read Can You Collect Your Judgment?)

Taking the Debtor’s Assets

Once you know the location of the debtor’s property, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with standard collection techniques that will allow you to recover it and satisfy your judgment.

  • Garnishing wages. If you know where the judgment debtor works, you’re in good shape. In most states, you‘re entitled to get approximately 25% of a person's net wages to satisfy a debt. If the debtor is low income, you’ll recover considerably less, and possibly nothing at all. Wage garnishments are not allowed in a few states. The sheriff's or marshal's office can supply you with your state rules.
  • Levying a bank account. If you know where a judgment debtor banks, you can order a sheriff, marshal, or constable to withdraw the funds and get whatever it contains, subject to exceptions. Expect this to work once. The debtor will likely move the account after you empty it.
  • Recording a real property lien. Another way to collect money is by putting a lien on the debtor’s real estate. In some states, the entry of a court judgment automatically creates a lien on any real property the debtor owns in the county. In other states, you’ll create a lien by recording the judgment in the county where the property is located. When the judgment debtor wishes to sell the real estate, the title will be clouded by your lien. Transfering clear title will require the debtor to pay off the lien. The same will hold true if the debtor wishes to refinance. Remember, however, that a portion of the debtor's equity in a home is exempt from collection.
  • Taking business property. A till tap or keeper is when the sheriff's, marshal's, or constable's office collect funds directly from the cash register of a business. You might also be able to seize money in a bank account, valuable equipment, and inventory.
  • Taking other property. Property that a debtor needs to work and live, such as furniture and vehicles can be more difficult to get because all states have debtor's exemption laws that prohibit creditors from seizing certain types of property to satisfy a debt. Practically speaking, the only personal property (as opposed to real estate) worth pursuing are things with equity that's greater than the state's exemption amount. You can collect from real estate assets as long as there’s enough equity to pay off the mortgage, pay the debtor any homestead exemption amount, and pay something towards the judgment (after paying the sheriff’s fees, which can be costly), then this approach will be feasible.

It’s important to know what property is off limits to creditors. Find out how much a judgment debtor can protect by reviewing the State Exemption Laws.

Getting a Writ of Execution

Before you can levy on a person's wages or other property, you must get court permission, usually in the form of a writ of execution, writ of garnishment, writ of attachment, or similarly titled document. In most states, you get your writ from the small claims court clerk for a small fee, which is a recoverable cost.

Once the court issues your writ, you’ll take or send it to the sheriff, marshal, or constable in the county where the assets are located. You’ll want to contact the department ahead of time to find out what you’ll need to provide, as well as the cost for the service. You can expect to pay more for a till tap, keeper, and the recovery of property.

Also, don’t delay. A writ of execution expires if it isn’t executed by the sheriff, marshal, or constable within a certain number of days. If this time runs out, you’ll have to go back to the small claims clerk and get another writ of execution issued. So don't get a writ of execution until you have identified the property you want to take.

Renewing the Judgment

A money judgment is good for only so long—usually five to 20 years depending on state law. If you need more time to collect, you must take steps to renew the judgment before it expires. Otherwise, you risk losing your collection rights.

You’ll need to record the new judgment in accordance with your state laws to preserve lien rights, as well. You’ll find a judgment renewal chart in Don’t Sue Unless You Can Collect the Judgment.

(You can learn more about the small claims process by reading Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo).)

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