What Is a Judgment Lien?

A judgment lien is created when someone wins a lawsuit against you and records the judgment against your property.

A judgment lien is a type of nonconsensual lien (a lien that attaches to your property without your agreement). It’s created when someone wins a lawsuit against you and then records the judgment against your property.

(Learn about lien basics in What Is a Lien?)

How Is a Judgment Lien Created?

A judgment lien can be imposed on your property only after somebody sues you and wins a money judgment against you. In most states, the judgment creditor (the person or company who won) must then record the judgment by filing it with the county or state.

In a few states, a judgment entered against you automatically creates a lien on the real estate you own in that county—that is, the judgment creditor doesn’t have to record the judgment to get the lien.

Most holders of unsecured debt—such as credit card balances, medical bills, and personal loans—must get a judgment before they can use more aggressive collection tactics. For instance, a creditor with a money judgment can garnish your wages and drain (levy) your bank account. These practices are often used before the creditor resorts to using the lien to recover property.

(Find out about the process in Creditor Lawsuits: What to Expect When the Case Is in Court.)

Types of Property a Judgment Lien Can Attach To

Almost all of your property is up for grabs. However, you might be able to protect some of it using an exemption.

  • Judgment liens on real estate. A judgment lien affects real estate you own in the county where the creditor records the lien, or where the court enters the judgment. Selling real estate can be an expensive process, and a creditor won’t pursue this avenue unless you have significant equity in the property. The creditor will only receive the amount remaining after paying off mortgages (and other earlier-in-time liens) and sales costs.
  • Judgment liens on personal property. In many states, a judgment lien also applies to your personal property (property other than real estate). However, judgment liens on personal property are generally ineffective, because most personal property can be protected with an exemption (the owner gets to keep it) or isn’t worth enough to justify the costs of obtaining it. Also, many personal property liens aren’t recorded (although some get recorded with the Secretary of State), so it’s relatively easy to sell it to a third party who has no idea that the lien existed.
  • Judgment liens on vehicles. A judgment creditor can also file a judgment with your state motor vehicles department to get a judgment lien on any car, truck, motorcycle, or another motor vehicle you own.

Judgment Liens Can Attach to Later Acquired Property

Typically, judgment liens recorded in your county will attach to property that you acquire later. For example, a judgment could be recorded in your county land records office even if you don’t own any real estate. If you buy some real estate a few years later, you’ll discover that it is now burdened by that pesky old lien that was just sitting there, waiting for you to make a move. Most real estate liens expire after a certain number of years (seven to ten in most states), though they can typically be renewed indefinitely.

(For more information, read How long does a creditor have to collect on a judgment against me?)

Avoiding Judgment Liens in Bankruptcy

You can get rid of some judgment liens in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. To learn more, see Getting Rid of Judgment Liens in Bankruptcy.)

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