Q. What collection options do I have after I get a civil court judgment (or what will happen when someone gets a judgment against me)?
A. While a judgment certainly does not guarantee immediate payment (nor does it mean that you as a judgment debtor are required to pay on the threat of incarceration). However, once a person or entity obtains judgment, there are various collection methods that increase the probability of payment.
1. Abstract of judgment. This is a court form that can be obtained from ww.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/. The judgment creditor fills out this form, gets it issued by the court clerk and then records it in the county recorder’s office of every county where one suspects the judgment debtor owns real property or may own real property in the future. The abstract of judgment is the most passive and often effective way to collect on a judgment. After the abstract is recorded, it becomes a lien against (or cloud on) the judgment debtor’s title of any real property owned in that county, both real property owned or owned for the life of the judgment. The property cannot be sold or refinanced without the lien being satisfied.
2. Bank levy. This is a method whereby the judgment creditor can seize the judgment debtor’s bank account to satisfy the debt. The judgment creditor must fill out and file a writ of execution with the court clerk. The form, like the abstract, can be obtained from the above referenced website. After the clerk issues the writ, the judgment creditor will contact the county sheriff’s office or a registered process server for instructions on how to levy on the judgment debtor’s actual bank account. The judgment debtor may be able to claim an exemption.
3. Wage Garnishment or Assignment Order. These are procedures which permit the judgment creditor to obtain a percentage of the judgment debtor’s wages from his/her employer or from a third party to satisfy the judgment. Like Nos. 1 and 2, this process is form driven and the forms can be obtained from the above referenced website.
4. Keeper or till tap. This procedure allows the judgment creditor to appoint a third party (such as the county sheriff or registered process server) to occupy a portion of the judgment debtor’s business premises and seize funds from the judgment debtor’s customers and/or clients as money is paid.
Q. How does one discover a judgment debtor’s assets for collection purposes?
A. After obtaining a judgment, the judgment creditor can hire a private investigator to try and determine the judgment debt’s assets. Some internet services are also helpful. Also, the judgment creditor can notice, through the courts, a judgment debtor’s exam, which requires the debtor to come to court on the noticed day and bring all the debtor’s documents which detail his/her/its assets (such as bank statements, check registers, titles, deeds, stocks, bonds, accounts, wills, trusts, etc) and answer all questions about the nature, location and value of the debtor’s assets. If the debtor is properly served and fails to appear, the court has the power to issue a bench warrant for the arrest of the judgment debtor. This mechanism alone often gets the debtor’s attention because it is a difficult and humbling experience that most debtor’s do not want to experience.
Q. How long is a judgment enforceable?
A. A California judgment is effective for 10 years and can be renewed for an additional 10 years as long as the renewal is done (via a form filed with the court) before the expiration of the first 10 years.