Citizen's Guide: Small Claims Court - How To Collect Your Small Claims Judgment

Step 4: Collecting Your Judgment

If you win the case, you're the "judgment creditor". The party that owes you money is the "judgment debtor" and has 30 days to pay.

If he doesn't, you take on the dual role of judgment creditor and collections agent. The Clerk of the Court can help you file a "judgment debtor exam" form to discover defendant's property out of which your judgment could be paid. These questions are often filed by mail, but a personal exam (for which the defendant appears and is sworn in) is also available.

My defendant is king of the deadbeats. Any suggestions?

If you've discovered all you can about the defendant's assets but can't convince him to part with any, the law has more drastic remedies up its sleeve:

  • Garnishment. If the deadbeat has a job, or a checking or savings account, you can "garnish" assets from any of these. Garnishment allows a creditor to claim money owed and set up a payment plan. For instance, a portion of the debtor's weekly paycheck could be earmarked by his employer to be paid directly to the debtor. Things which can't be garnished include unemployment checks, social security payments, workman's compensation, and welfare benefits.
  • Liens. If the judgment debtor owns any real property, you can file a lien on it through the Court Clerk's office, with a copy to the County Treasurer's office. When the property is sold, you recover the amount owed. Liens need to be renewed every five years.
  • Writ of Execution. This is a more drastic remedy whereby a judgment creditor can seize the judgment debtor's property, get it appraised, and sell it to satisfy the judgment. If you're planning to have the deadbeat's yacht sold at auction, you'll pay incidental expenses incurred to get to that point, but can normally recover expenses.

Collecting from a reluctant defendant can be long and tricky, notes attorney Ed Snyder, and you may want to consult an attorney when your need for help surpasses the court's resources.

If all goes well, you'll end up with a new silk blouse and the satisfaction of knowing that the system worked for you. Next case!