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 Massachusetts? 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?)
In every state, a judgment lien can be attached to the debtor's real estate -- meaning a house, condo, land, or similar kind of property interest. And some states also allow judgment liens on the debtor's personal property -- things like jewelry, art, antiques, and other valuables.
In Massachusetts, a judgment lien can be attached to either real estate or personal property.
The creditor files the judgment with the registrar of deeds in any Massachusetts county where the debtor has real estate now or may have real estate in the future. For liens on personal property, the creditor files a copy of the judgment with the city or town clerk.
A judgment lien in Massachusetts will remain attached to the debtor's property (even if the property changes hands) for 20 years (for liens on real estate) or 30 days (for liens on personal property).
Keep in mind: In Massachusetts, 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 Massachusetts bankruptcy and debt attorney to help you sort out any lien issues.
If you want to go right to the source and look up Massachusetts 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 Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 223, Sections 42, 59, 63; ch. 260, section 20. For tips on looking up Massachusetts state laws, check out Nolo's Laws and Legal Research section.