Judgment Liens on Property in California

In California, a property lien can be used to collect a court judgment. Here's how it works.

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In a civil court case, after a judge or jury hands down a verdict -- or after a court-approved settlement -- a judgment is entered by the court. As part of a typical judgment, the court orders the payment of money from one person to another. But the person who owes the money (the debtor) doesn't always pay up. A judgment lien is one way to ensure that the person who won the judgment (the creditor) gets what he or she is owed. A judgment lien gives the creditor the right to be paid a certain amount of money from proceeds from the sale of the debtor's property.

So, how do judgment liens work in California? Read on to understand the rules. (For more background information on liens on property and judgments in general, check out Nolo's articles Collect Your Court Judgment with a Real Estate Lien and Can You Collect Your Judgment?)

What kind of property is subject to a judgment lien under California law?

In California, a judgment lien can be attached to the debtor's real estate -- meaning a house, condo, land, or similar kind of property interest -- or to the debtor's personal property -- things like jewelry, art, antiques, and other valuables. (In some states, judgment liens can be attached to personal property only.)

How does a creditor go about getting a judgment lien in California?

To attach a lien to real estate, the creditor can take or mail the abstract of judgment to the county recorder's office in any California county where the debtor owns real estate now, or may own it in the future. For personal property, the creditor files a Notice of Judgment Lien with the California Secretary of State, or serves the debtor with a notice of a debtor's examination.

How long does a judgment lien last in California?

A judgment lien in California will remain attached to the debtor's property (even if the property changes hands) for ten years.

Keep in mind: In California, a creditor's ability to collect under a judgment lien will be affected by a number of factors -- including a fixed amount of value that won't be touchable if the property is the debtor's primary residence (called a homestead exemption), other liens that may be in place, and any foreclosure or bankruptcy proceedings. If things get complicated, you may want to talk with an experienced California bankruptcy and debt attorney to help you sort out any lien issues.

Where can I look up California law on judgment liens?

If you want to go right to the source and look up California laws on judgment liens -- maybe you're a party to a judgment, or you're just researching potential encumbrances on property -- the relevant statute(s) can be found at Cal. Civ. Proc. Code sections 697.310, 697.340. For tips on looking up California state laws, check out Nolo's Laws and Legal Research section.

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